Heading back to school can be stressful for children even when there’s no global pandemic to worry about.
Now, this ‘return to normalcy’ after COVID-19 lockdowns makes it more important than ever to pay attention to children’s mental health, says Dr. Tyler Black, assistant clinical professor at UBC faculty of medicine’s department of psychiatry.
Dr. Black explains why parents of school-aged children and educators need to consider a gentle approach to easing kids back to class, or as he advises: “less homework and more leeway.”
Many have looked forward to the start of a full-time, in-person school year as something of a return to normalcy. What do you think it’s likely to do for children’s mental health?
It’s hard to say one thing because it’s different for everyone. The unconventional schooling of the past year and a half worked well for some children and not for others. Some kids and families benefited from less in-person school during the pandemic—working well with technology and avoiding things like bullying and those types of things—while others really struggled with the changes, missing socializing, sporting events and more.
What would you say to parents who are particularly anxious for their children’s education to get back to its pre-pandemic pace?
We need to make sure we take a pace that doesn’t overwhelm them. Let’s make the transition a little bit gentler for them. Academics can take a backseat—or at least a passenger seat—relative to the work teachers and schools can do to foster mental health, well-being and connection.
There has also been a little bit of an exaggeration of the ‘disaster of not attending school.’ Schools are great for kids, but kids can develop some skills regardless of whether or not they go to school, from social and environmental learning to learning that gets passed on from parents to kids, and more.
Kids’ brains are amazing. They’ll catch up.
How can parents monitor how their children are responding to the return to full-time schooling?
Kids may not know specifically when they’re feeling overwhelmed but they’re going to show behaviours of distress, so I think parents should be attuned to things like their children’s sleep, their mood, if they’re unusually bored or unmotivated, how they’re eating and also, notice if they’re enjoying themselves.
Remember, kids are supposed to have fun!
What steps can parents take if their children are struggling?
If a child says they’re struggling, we need to make their life easier. I routinely teach parents the mantra: “What can I do to help you?” It’s a powerful question. For example, if they say, “School is hard,” it’s a prompt to talk with the school and consider, “Well maybe kids have a half day or a day off now and then, or spend more time in a resource room instead of doing school work.” Less homework, more leeway.
What misconceptions do people have about the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children and youth?
Unfortunately, messaging around mental health has been quite politicized during the pandemic and context is often missing. For instance, we’ve gone through 2020—where we had a lot of lockdowns—and we can confidently say that in most of the developing world suicide rates actually decreased, in spite of reports saying otherwise.
At the same time, studies have shown all measures of distress are up for kids. Worldwide about 1.1 million children have lost a primary caregiver due to COVID, so it’s very important that we relieve the burden of stress where we can.
Who is most at risk?
During virtually every disaster that hits societies, it is the underprivileged, minoritized and racialized people who bear the brunt of the difficulties. Now is a time for continuing to bolster social supports, and directly and substantially support families in these groups, and to make sure that those of us in a position to do more relieve the burden on those who don’t have that privilege.