COVID-19 means added anxiety at school, but you can ease your kids' fears, experts say

For many families, back to school can be a difficult time, especially if your kids are starting at a new school. This year, the pandemic is adding to the stress. But experts say there are ways parents can ease their children's fears.

Parents can play significant role in helping kids adapt to a new normal, psychologist says

Nadia Kabir and her family have moved to a new neighbourhood. Her kids will start at a new school this fall. (Nazima Walji/CBC)

Nadia Kabir is sending her kids back to class in September, even though the mother of two says she's nervous and anxious about the start of the upcoming school year, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Now this is a new norm to be wearing the mask all the time and then washing hands more frequently than ever.  So I'm not sure how they can cope with this new norm," she told CBC Toronto.

As school boards across Ontario work to finalize back-to-school plans, the number of unknowns has left parents like Kabir, as well as students and teachers, with an added level of stress as the academic year approaches.

But a psychologist who works specifically with young children says there are steps families can take to make the transition easier for students this fall. 

Listen to and validate children's fears, expert says

"Students learn about what's safe and not safe by the adults around them," said Todd Cunningham, a psychologist at Bright Lights Psychology Clinic and an associate professor at the University of Toronto. 

"So when parents are talking about this, listening to it on the news when they are unsure and fearful about the return themselves, students are going to ... hear that and kind of internalize that themselves."

Todd Cunningham of Bright Lights Psychology Clinic says: 'There definitely seems to be an uncertainty about what the future looks like as we return to school and so that creates anxiety, that creates stresses in kids.' (CBC)

Zahedur Rahman, Kabir's husband, says the couple has been trying to limit their children's exposure to their own conversations about their fears around the pandemic and the return to school.

"So they don't get scared even to go back to school," said Rahman.  "We want to encourage them to go back to school." 

Kabir says she is especially worried about her son, Nafiur Rahman, who is starting Grade 6 at a new school in the Durham District School Board this fall.   

Back-to-school jitters heightened during pandemic

Nafiur says he's feeling more than just normal back to school day butterflies that usually come at the end of the summer. 

"I'm worried because it's a new school and because I'm starting in a new school with COVID -19 on top of that, which makes it hard to get to understand the school and to make friends," he told CBC Toronto. 

Nadia Kabir has been getting her kids, Nafiur and Rahman, ready for back-to-school by getting them to practise wearing their masks for longer periods of time. (Nazima Walji/CBC)

While transitions in life can always create a little bit of uncertainty and getting the back-to-school jitters are a normal part of life, Cunningham says, the role parents play is very significant.

He suggests it's a healthy idea to focus instead on the day-to-day routines of being back at school during a pandemic and then put them into practice.

"So, let's practise wearing the face mask and kind of work through some of the challenges of what do you do when it starts to feel itchy and sweaty," said Cunningham.

Shelley Murphy, a former elementary teacher and now a lecturer at the University of Toronto, agrees. She says many children will experience back-to-school fears and that it's paramount parents give their kids the tools to deal with the stress.

Murphy, also a mindfulness expert, says it helps to talk to kids about their fears, validate them and teach them what they can control in the situation.

"Washing their hands, using hand sanitizer, avoiding touching their face, wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance. We want to give them a sense of control in a world where we have less control than we typically do." 

Kindergarten 'like a petri dish,' teacher says

Parents and children aren't the only ones dealing with a new kind of anxiety. 

"It's like a petri dish, a kindergarten room," said John Paul Kane, a teacher in the Toronto District School Board. 

John Paul Kane, a Toronto teacher, says he's 'grateful that the school board has passed a motion where all children must be masked during the day. That was one of my biggest concerns.' (CBC)

In anticipation of the new school year, Kane posted a message for parents on his social media pages suggesting they get their kids used to playing with a mask on their face for longer periods of time.

But Kane says he's trying to balance his anxiety with his desire to stay connected with his students.

"I'm still going to be driven to be a compassionate, funny, sensitive and in-tune person with my kids."

A new normal

That in person relationship with teachers, and students, emphasizes Kabir, outweighs the risk of the possibility of her kids getting sick.

Even though Kabir knows she will worry every time her daughter, Zara, who starts kindergarten in the fall, comes home with a runny nose.

"My daughter, especially. She gets sick with a little cough or runny nose, but now having this COVID situation, I think this will be a big concern for us to know if she is actually having the seasonal flu, or is it the COVID."

And the idea of returning to some kind of normal , says Rahman, is the best possible decision they can make for their kids.

"They cannot have the same life they had before. But as much as possible they can play around with their friends. They can see their friends in person, not the virtual all the time."

With files from Here And Now