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5 Tips for Supporting a Mentally Healthy Return to School

5 Tips for Supporting a Mentally Healthy Return to School

Tips for a mentally healthy return to schoolReturn to school, though an exciting time, can be exceptionally challenging for many children. Children will have different feelings than others about returning to school including excitement, nervousness or uncertainty. All children experience the stress of transitioning back to school, while some who have had challenges at school in the past or who suffer from anxiety, depression or other mental illnesses may have a particularly difficult time returning to school. Parents and caregivers have a critical role in ensuring an emotionally safe transition to school. Below are five tips for parents and caregivers to support a mentally healthy return to school.

 

Getting back to routineTip 1: Get Back to Routine – Routines help children to have a sense of security and predictability, which is critical during return to school, a time of year when many adjustments are necessary. With regular routines in place, children can handle changes with less stress. Begin to re-establish healthy routines early to avoid extra stress when school begins. Here is where to start.

  • Create a routine for evenings and mornings – Allow your child(ren) to participate in the creation of a schedule. You may ask questions such as “What do you think we can do in the evening to make mornings less stressful?” and “What do you want to do first when you wake up? Get dressed or have breakfast?” Allowing your child(ren) to participate will help them to have a sense of control and increase the likelihood of success.
  • Post a visual and refer to it often – Create a written or visual schedule with your child(ren) and decide where you will post it. Refer to it often for example “okay you’ve finished your breakfast, what comes next on your schedule, let’s check together.”
  • Make connection part of the routine – Having just a few moments of one-on-one time with your child(ren) before bed or a busy day will help them feel connected and loved and will reduce the likelihood of resistance.
  • Celebrate successes (no matter how small) – Let your child(ren) know when you feel proud. They are eager to please you. You might say “You got dressed on your own today and I didn’t even have to ask! That’s so great!”

Bartlett, Kelly (2022, August 1). Back to School Routine: Tips for Creating Structure and Predictability. Green Child Magazine. https://www.greenchildmagazine.com/back-to-school-routine/

 

Understanding the signsTip 2Understand the Signs – Stress looks differently for everyone. Some children and youth may be able to identify and communicate their feelings easily, while others have difficulty. Changes in physical health and/or behaviours can say a lot about how your child is doing emotionally. Stress and anxiety impact the body and can lead to tummy troubles, headaches and other physical symptoms. You might also see changes in your child’s eating and sleeping habits or notice they are more withdrawn socially. Children and youth under stress will often become irritable or have emotional outbursts or tantrums. Though seemingly unrelated, the return to school and the stress that inevitably accompanies this transition may be the root of such problems. Be sure to respond with empathy and patience knowing that your child(ren) may be experiencing a normal reaction to a difficult situation.

School Mental Health Ontario (2022). How to Support a Mentally Healthy Back to School for Your Child. https://smho-smso.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Supporting-Mental-Health-and-Wellness-during-the-Return-to-School-Tip-Sheet-EN.pdf

 

Start the conversationTip 3Start the Conversation – The best way to support your child(ren) during return to school is to better understand what they are thinking and feeling about the situation. Take some focused time to talk to your child(ren) about their return to school. This doesn’t have to be a sit-down discussion, in fact, kids often speak more freely when doing something at the same time like driving in the car or playing a game. Be sure to stay focused on what your child has to say and give space for them to speak freely without judgement or criticism. Here are some back-to-school conversation starters that might be helpful:

  • What are you looking forward to the most about starting school? What are you not looking forward to?
  • What do you think will be different this year? What is likely to stay the same?
  • Are you wondering anything about going back to school? I wonder where we might find answers to those questions?
  • What is on your mind when you think about returning to school? What are you looking forward to and what are you concerned, frustrated, or even sad about?
  • What are some challenges you might expect to face this year? How do you think we can overcome these challenges as a family?
  • What would things look like if everything was going really well or if everything was going wrong?

Children’s Mental Health Ontario (2021). Communicate With Your Child. Family Care Centre. https://www.family.cmho.org/communicate-with-your-child/

 

Validate feelingsTip 4Validate Feelings and Respond to Needs– Once you get your child(ren) talking (see-conversation starting tips), you need to listen. REALLY LISTEN! It can be tempting to jump into problem-solving mode or start reassuring your child that all will be well, but your child(ren) might interpret this as you not understanding or caring about their difficulties. They might say to you “You just don’t get it” or “I don’t want to talk about this anymore” in response to your honest attempts to help. Try this instead:

  • Accept your child(ren)’s feelings – Try to accept feelings without judgement. We don’t have to agree in order to help the child(ren) put names to their feelings.
  • Normalize your child(ren)’s feelings – Try treating the expression of feelings as a normal part of the human experience. You might say to your child(ren) “I can imagine you would be feeling nervous about going back to school, it’s hard when we don’t know for sure how things will go.”
  • Make room for your child(ren)’s feelings – Don’t tell your child to not worry or be upset - this will make matters worse! Instead, give your child(ren) time and space to work through and make sense of what they are experiencing.

Validating your child(ren)’s feelings will reduce their sense of alarm and help them feel like they are not alone. Your child(ren) will then be in a better place to problem solve or try strategies to reduce stress and anxiety like deep breathing.

Deborah McNamara (2021). Listening and Coming Along Side Kid’s Emotions. https://macnamara.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/coming-alongside-1.jpg

 

Bridge to supportsTip 5: Bridge to supports – Separating from home and family where children feel safe and secure is stressful and at times anxiety-provoking. Help your child(ren) foster meaningful relationships with school staff and peers so they feel connected and confident.

  • Assist your child in identifying a safe person at school – Every child needs a caring adult that they can trust and who will help with any challenges during the school day. Help your child to identify who they may be able to go to in times of need. The classroom teacher is always a good choice if they are not connected with any other adults.
  • Make a plan to connect in times of need – Talk to your child(ren) about circumstances when they might need assistance for example if they are experiencing difficult emotions or are unsure where to go and talk through how they will ask for help. It may help to practice or role-play the conversation to improve confidence with this skill.  Remind your child(ren) that we ALL need help at times, especially when things are new to us. It may help to share situations when you have required help from others.
  • Encourage reconnection with peers – If you are able, encourage your child to re-connect with others from their class or school before school begins. Friends may help your child feel more confident or they may be experiencing similar upset. Assist your child(ren) to have a discussion with their friends about their thoughts related to returning to school.  Help your child to identify a couple of peers that they can speak to about their summer and what news they might share. If your child has difficulties with peer relationships, please review Tips for encouraging and supporting friendships during the school year.

Children’s Mental Health Ontario (2021). Support Your Child’s Mental Wellness. Family Care Centre. https://www.family.cmho.org/six-tips-to-support-your-childs-mental-wellness/

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