Kids back at school in person? This mental health expert has some tips

Students at all four of Ottawa’s school boards are back to in-person classes as of Thursday — and for some it's their first time in class in more than a year.

Expert advises parents to model calmness and talk it out

If the adults in a student's life can model calmness, that will help children adapt to back-to-school, says the OCDSB mental health lead Emily Balla. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Students at all four of Ottawa's school boards are back to in-person classes as of Thursday — and for some it's their first time in more than a year. 

For some, the COVID-19 school closures meant the loss of structure, community and the added stress that comes with that — but returning to school can be stressful too, especially with the additional pandemic safety protocols. 

Emily Balla, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board's (OCDSB) mental health lead, shared some advice for families returning to school with CBC's All In a Day. The OCDSB returns to class on Thursday. 

Have a conversation, but not 'big talk' 

Balla says a conversation about back-to-school could happen in the car while driving or during a game of basketball. 

She says to avoid a "big talk" that adds stress for everyone. 

The idea of the conversation is to make space for the breadth of emotions students may feel, especially as things could shift as the school year goes on. 

"I think as adults, we often actually really rush to fix and solve things and tell [our children] all the information, but the reality is right now, we don't have all the answers."

The reality is right now, we don't have all the answers.- Emily Balla, OCDSB mental health lead

It is also important to understand that everyone is going to be feeling a lot of things and not all of them will be negative, she says.  

"We talk a lot about the nerves, but we know that some students are really going to thrive with a return," Balla said. "For others, it'll be a struggle." 

Watch for behaviour changes 

Kids might not always be able to articulate all they're feeling, Balla said. She suggests watching for behavioural changes. 

Anxious feelings can manifest as withdrawal, shutting down or acting out.

While there's a tendency to see acting out as intentional, Balla says it can be an indication of anxiety. 

If the adults in a student's life can model calmness, that will also help, Balla says, as will parents' belief that their kid can go with the flow and manage the changes as they come. 

For kids starting kindergarten or older kids adjusting to new routines, it's not their age as much as their temperament, she said.

Students walk through the parking lot at Franco-Cité Catholic High School in Ottawa on Aug. 31, 2021, their first day back to school. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Focus on what you know

In the face of the uncertainty of what the delta variant will mean for schools, Balla suggests the whole family focus on what is known and what can be controlled. 

Take what your children experienced last year, then talk about what worked and didn't work for them. Ask if they want to walk to school by themselves, with parents or with friends. 

Setting a routine that will help students prepare for their school schedule can help, as can adjustments to the amount of screen time and introducing them to a larger group of peers with physically-distanced park visits. 

Since masks are a guarantee, talk about those. All Ottawa school boards have mandated masks for students from kindergarten to Grade 12. 

On CBC's Ottawa Morning, Dr. Vera Etches, the city's medical officer of health, says three-layer masks make a difference. 

Etches said, all the COVID-19 protocols — from cleaning to masks to distancing — help reduce the risk of the delta variant. She said the largest protection is parents and eligible students getting vaccinated.

With files from Alan Neal and Ottawa Morning

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