A Back To School Like No Other

BY DR. JENNIFER SULLIVAN

We had all been awaiting the government’s announcement with bated breath—would schools be reopening in September? And if so, what would that look like?

On July 30th, Premier Doug Ford took the podium and ended the suspense—Ontario students will be going back to class this fall. Parents were assured that this decision was made in consultation with the province’s top medical and health experts and that student safety was the top priority. Safety measures will include mandatory wearing of masks for students (grades 4 and up), teachers, and staff; cohorting and physical distancing; enhanced cleaning/disinfecting; and self-screening at home.

Clearly, school will be a very different experience for children, and many parents are worried about their child’s well-being as they head back to a new school reality. Here are some important tips to prepare your child for a successful transition back to school.

Explain that school will look and feel different.

If your child walks into school on the first day expecting everything to be the same, they will likely feel overwhelmed, and be ill-prepared to cope with the new school environment. It is important to talk to your child about what to expect. For instance, explain that masks will be mandatory for students (grades 4 and up), teachers, and staff; physical distancing will be required, and there may be vinyl barriers in classrooms and other areas to help with physical distancing.

Have your child practice wearing a mask.

Let’s face it, wearing a mask takes some getting used to. And although our kids may have had to wear one, chances are it wasn’t for very long. To help your child adapt to wearing a mask for the entire school day, slowly build up their tolerance. For instance, begin with one hour for one day, and add an hour or two each day until your child is comfortable wearing their mask for six hours. Make sure the mask fits well, and address any negative emotions that your child may be experiencing about wearing their mask. Consider wearing your mask during practice sessions as a show of solidarity!

Explain the reason for the changes at school.

It will help your child to understand and accept the changes at school if they know why they are necessary. Talk about COVID-19 and how the virus spreads. Let your child know that the changes at school are to stop the spread of the virus and to keep everyone safe.

Talk about the importance of remaining flexible.

Let your child know that changes could happen at any time and that we all need to be flexible. If your child struggles with change, validate their feelings, and let them know that the health and medical experts will make the best decisions for children and their families. Encourage them to try their best to “go with the flow.”

Have a conversation about anxiety.

Explain that when don’t know how things will work out (in other words, when we feel uncertain), we can feel anxious. Help your child understand that worrying about things they can’t control doesn’t help—it will only make them feel bad. Encourage your child to focus on things that they can control. And make sure they know that you are there for them to talk about any worries they may be experiencing.

Change can be difficult. However, by preparing your child ahead of time, they will be much better equipped to adapt to the “new normal” at school. In the words of the great Alexander Graham Bell, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

“Changing the Conversation” is a monthly column by Jennifer Sullivan, Psychologist and CEO of Sullivan + Associates Clinical Psychology, that focuses on normalizing mental health issues through education and public awareness. It appears on the Healthstyle page on the second Tuesday of each month.

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