Is going back to school in a socially distanced way going to affect the mental health of our kids? Are there differences in how kids will experience the changes based on age?

September is generally a time where kids with anxious dispositions tend to struggle. This year, it’s probably safe to say that an even greater proportion of kids will be dealing with feelings of anxiety. It’s important to note that going back to school (this year or any) should not be thought of as a “cause” of mental health problems. Rather, it might be viewed as a stressor that causes symptoms to flare up in children who are already tending in this direction. As the stressor is greater this year, it follows that a larger number of children may find themselves having impairing levels of anxiety and fear.  Also, age can influence how mental health problems are displayed. For young children, we often become aware of feelings of fear or sadness through “acting out” type behaviors. In other kids, it may be more of a loss of interest in activities, low energy, irritability, or changes in sleep patterns. 

Are our kids affected by how their teachers are handling back to school? Are they affected by their parent’s anxiety about back to school? How do kids deal with the mental health of the adults around them?

Children influence and are influenced by the adults in their lives. There is no question that both teachers and parents have more on their plates this year. Kids do too. Thus, there is a collective level of heightened stress that can be manifesting in these relationships and interactions. Different kids respond to distress in adults in different ways based on their dominant coping strategies. Some kids can become avoidant, suppress emotion, and make a display that “they can do it on their own”. Other kids can heighten their emotional responses in order to recruit caregiving and soothing. In both instances, kids need the message that they will be alright because the adults are alright and can take care of them. Of course, this necessitates the adults being alright, too.  

How will it affect kids if they go back to school, and then the schools are shut down again due to a COVID case?

A recent simulation study, led by my colleague Chris Bauch at the University of Waterloo, demonstrated that the proposed class sizes will actually result in fewer student days of school, due to the need to close entire classes when a case of COVID comes up. The larger the class, the more kids this will affect. Given the way things look, parents should absolutely prepare for the possibility that there will be closures for their child’s class or school, and have a contingency caregiving plan in place to offset the nature of this disruption, as best they can. Unfortunately, anticipated shut-downs will likely be dysregulating for kids, especially those who need a well-oiled routine to be successful. This is why it's important for families to have these conversations ahead of time. One option is to draw on other parents in their social circle.

The University of Waterloo has a number of experts available for comment on various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here to see the up-to-date list.

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