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How to prepare for back to school during the pandemic

By Stéphanie Deslauriers, Psychoeducator

We know that back-to-school 2020 will be, let’s say, special.

For some students, masks will have to be worn in the classroom which can be a source of anxiety for some, even though many have already gotten used to it by going with you to indoor public places, such as grocery stores or pharmacies. Don’t hesitate to bring them along on various trips outside the house where they can practice wearing a mask and become more comfortable with it.

Why not have them choose styles that they like and that they find more comfortable? After all, the mask has become a piece of clothing that allows people to show their tastes, interests, and thus, a part of their personality.

For worried or anxious kids, I suggest role-playing to prepare for what their school reality will be like in a few days. For example, we can make sure that our children have their masks handy, practice moving around in a hallway, putting the mask on and taking it off hygienically.

By doing so, we reduce the fear of the unknown by already exposing our young ones to these new procedures in the comfort of their home with people they trust – family members.

STILL A LOT OF UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Unfortunately, many questions remain unanswered to this day. Several aspects of schooling will be addressed in “reaction” mode rather than in “prevention” mode since public health cannot predict the unpredictable. This situation can obviously cause stress and insecurity for students and their parents.

When we don’t know the answers to the questions asked by our children, we tend to try to find them, but we currently don’t have answers to many of these questions. It’s better to be honest with our children and teenagers and tell them “I don’t have this information” than to give them a false one in order to appease them. The answers to certain questions may change and prove to be false in the future, which could lead to more stress and insecurity for our little ones and teens.

ABSENTEEISM AND SCHOOL MOTIVATION

Some parents and students may feel stressed about the school absenteeism that will have to take place whenever someone in the household has symptoms associated with COVID, even if it is only a cough or runny nose. Legitimate fears that young students may not be up to date in their learning or that they may lose motivation by staying home are present in many households.

Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Set up a quiet spot that is conducive to concentration in case your child needs to stay at home temporarily
  • Try, as much as possible, to adjust your work schedule according to these situations of balancing remote work and youth at home, by discussing it with your employer in advance to find out what accommodations are possible
  • Plan for homework and lessons with your child at a time when their concentration is optimal
  • Intersperse tasks with short breaks for snacks, to watch a short video, or get some fresh air
  • Start with the most challenging tasks (when they have the most energy) and finish with the easiest and most enjoyable ones

HOW TO MAINTAIN SOCIALIZATION

School-age children and youth have a great need to socialize with people their own age. This is normal: it’s a crucial part of their development. It is even more normal for teenagers who are amid a major identity quest. It’s not uncommon for parents to find that they don’t see their teens much anymore; they are with their friends most of the time when they are not at school. However, since the beginning of the confinement, teens have been asked to stay at home with their parents 24 hours a day, when they would typically distance themselves from them in order to discover themselves, develop autonomy, and eventually spread their wings.

It is then normal, during times of lockdown, that our teens are even more connected to their social networks and wish to chat with their friends online or have video calls with them. In fact, one teenager I know had a weekly online meeting with their friend where, for example, they would each cook at home while chatting together.

Another solution is to allow our teens to see friends in a park or at home (ideally 3-4 friends, always the same ones) and to educate them on the importance of keeping a certain physical distance, washing their hands frequently, and not drinking from the same glass, among other things. We can also let our teens invite friends over (always respecting the physical distance and health recommendations); with warmer weather, they will be able to stay outside without any problem!

HELPING OUR ANXIOUS KIDS

Some children and teenagers have developed anxiety about Covid-19; the fear of contracting the virus, that some people around them will get it and experience complications or even die from it, may even cause them to try to avoid public places and social gatherings. Indeed, avoidance is THE strategy that anxious people use. It allows them to avoid being confronted with their fears.

However, avoidance is a false good strategy; we don’t have to face what we are afraid of at the time, but we also don’t have the opportunity to reframe our fears by telling ourselves, for example, that those around us are in good health, that they take hygiene measures seriously, that we, ourselves, wash our hands and wear a mask, and that many people are asymptomatic, etc.

In short, the more we avoid, the more we want to avoid, and the more our fear grows it has the risk of becoming invasive and paralyzing. As a parent, it’s therefore important to listen to our child’s fears, to tell them that we understand, and that they have every right to feel this way. Then, in a benevolent manner, we can help them adopt a more realistic approach using the examples mentioned above. Since there is, unfortunately, no such thing as zero risk, it is NOT recommended to minimize their fears, to tell them that “It’s going to be okay”, and that no one they know will contract the virus. This information would be false and therefore falsely reassuring.

If you notice that your child is strongly affected by the anxiety they are feeling, i.e. that their appetite and sleep levels have changed drastically, that they refuse to see their friends even though they are generally social, that they avoid several situations out of fear and that, despite your attempts, the situation is not improving, do not hesitate to take them to see a professional such as a psychologist, psychoeducator, or psychotherapist. These specialists will be able to support them and give you ideas to implement at home.

Finally, let’s not forget that the vast majority of our children have a great capacity to adapt to new situations. It may be that we, as parents, have our own concerns; we must be careful not to pass them on to our children. We should take the time to talk with our children if they feel the need to do so, to give them true information, and to tell them honestly that we just don’t know when we don’t have the answers. Either way, we will all adjust, one day at a time.

Happy back-to-school season to all of you!

Stéphanie Deslauriers is a psychoeducator by training and a passionate author. Since 2012, she has published more than 10 books – including her first literary novel, which won the Grand Prix du Livre de la Montérégie in 2015. You may have seen her on Télé-Québec’s Format Familial program, where she participates in the “Prenez un numéro” column, or on TVA and LCN where she comments on current events. You may have read her on “Les P’tits Mots Dits” or on www.educatout.com. The least we can say is that Stéphanie is brimming with energy and inspiration. Stéphanie favours parental coaching for children 10 years old and under and individual intervention with the youth in addition to parental coaching for children 11 years old and over. She has also been working in the autism community since 2006 and teaches at the University of Montreal.