How to prioritize your child’s mental health amid a delayed return to school

With schools across the country delaying students’ return to the classroom, experts are suggesting parents prepare their kids with coping strategies to deal with ongoing pandemic-related stressors that may be impacting their mental well-being.

Child psychiatrist and parenting author Dr. Shimi Kang said the delayed return to in-person learning, due to the Omicron variant, has parents and children once again facing a school semester of uncertainty, creating stress and anxiety around the impact of remote learning on a child’s education, as well as their overall development.

“This is one more additional stressor on top of obviously 20 months of stress, and also though, on top of what was clearly very concerning trends in children’s mental health, even pre-pandemic,” Kang said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca on Monday.

Kang, who has her own practice in Vancouver, said the recent closures or delaying of school in various provinces is continuing to put children’s mental health at risk, with many students attending school virtually and having limited access to extracurricular activities.

Not only can learning be difficult online, Kang said, but learning “in the context of relationships” can be even more challenging through a computer screen.

“School provides very important social emotional learning and skills, either directly in a curriculum or indirectly through all these micro-interactions at recess, at lunch, in the hallways, and those will be missing in terms of online learning,” Kang said.

A recent Canadian study suggests that children who learned remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, for both elementary and secondary students, reported they felt they ‘mattered less’ than their peers who studied in-person.

The study found that elementary school students who attended school in-person reported feeling that they mattered the most, followed by secondary school students who learned part-time in-person and the rest of the time online.

In addition, other studies have shown record high levels of stress and anxiety in school-aged children due to routines and classrooms being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A study led by SickKids hospital in Toronto showed that during the COVID-19 pandemic, about 70 per cent of youth ages six to 18 experienced one or more of the following: depression, anxiety, irritability, a lower attention span, or obsessions and compulsions. For children between the ages of two and five, approximately 66 per cent reported having at least one of these symptoms.

HELPING CHILDREN COPE

Julia Donnelly O’Neill, founder of the Toronto Nature School, told CTV News Channel on Saturday that children are struggling with their mental health amid pandemic disruptions to their lives.

To help with this, Donnelly O’Neill said it is necessary for parents to be open and identify their own pandemic-related anxieties before helping their kids manage similar stress.

“It’s really important to kind of have an open conversation about it in your house all the time so that if there becomes an issue, kids feel comfortable bringing that to you,” Donnelly O’Neill said.

She said parents also need to reassure their children when fears and anxieties arise. Donnelly O’Neill suggests parents remind kids that they are there for them, and to ask for help when they need it.

These tips can help, but Donnelly O’Neill said parents still need to anticipate bumps in the process. She said families need to focus on the present and how to make each moment the best it can be, regardless of whether they’re doing remote learning or in-person.

“Happiness isn’t hinging on a sunshiny day, which is kind of what’s going on in the pandemic. Happiness is something we kind of have to really strive to keep going in our houses right now,” Donnelly O’Neill said.

While remote learning can be challenging academically and socially for some, Dr. Tyler Black, a child and adolescent psychiatrist from the University of British Columbia, said that it has the potential to be a positive experience if parents and teachers check in with their students and kids more regularly about how they are coping amid the pandemic.

“My hope is that schools can take their remote learning goals a little bit more seriously and stop trying to just deliver in-person classroom content via the internet,” Black said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca on Monday. “It would be a lot better to use that time for social connection.”

Black said school time is when children see their friends, and it is important that teachers make time for socialization with remote learning.

On the parents’ side, Black said families need to be open minded with the ever-changing school situation and regularly check in with their kids to see how they’re coping. He added that parents should also take it one step further by asking their children what they can do to help.

“Ask ‘What can I do to help you? What can I do to make this easier for you?’ as opposed to parents coming up with a bunch of solutions that then get put on their kids,” he explained.

Despite previous upsets with online learning during the course of the pandemic, Kang said she is hopeful that this time will be different for parents, teachers and kids.

“If we do [online learning] mindfully, then we can get more out of it,” she said.

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