National Post (Latest Edition)

Easing back-to-school anxiety

- KATHRYN BOOTHBY

Returning to the classroom after the challenges and restrictio­ns of COVID-19 has been difficult for many students. To help assuage the nervousnes­s and anxiety that shows itself in many forms, some private schools are adopting new tools and finding new ways to engage and promote connection.

“Although back to school anxiety is not new, this year it has been heightened because of circumstan­ces that led to an extended absence – particular­ly for those between grades 3 and 8,” says Tara Silver, principal at The Linden School for girls in Toronto. “For the past 18 months at home, students have had a more structured daily routine for learning, with limited access to former school friends. As the time came to move back into the schoolyard and the classroom, there was more concern about who would still be their friend and who their teacher would be.”

That anxiety has manifested differentl­y as the days have progressed: Students were initially reserved; some were pushing back more than usual; and, there were many sleepy students by day’s end as sleep schedules had to change, says Silver.

“For the first week, lunchtimes were much quieter than the norm. Typically, it would be a noisy, giggling environmen­t as friendship­s were renewed and tales of summer holidays were told,” she says. “This year, perhaps due to more screen time, older students spent more time on their phones during breaks. Teachers also noticed that the social skills of six- and seven-year-olds, in particular, were simply not there. They were clearly out of practice.”

The key was to take things slowly to allow students to reacquaint, and for teachers to model behaviours for students to emulate. “Thinking positively and reframing negative thoughts has been extremely important. As has dialling back the need for students to reach a crucial goal by a specific time,” says Silver.

At Linden, outdoor education, collaborat­ive learning and teamwork have also proven their worth in anxiety management. A recent rain-day adventure had a group of teens climbing aerial obstacles at Treetop Trekking in Stouffvill­e.

“Students developed and strengthen­ed friendship­s, built skills, confidence and resilience, and surprised themselves at what they were able to accomplish,” says athletics director Deidre Macpherson. “I’m so glad we were able to provide this experience, especially at a time when students have been missing connection with one another so keenly.”

Prior to the start of the new inschool year at Kingsway College School (KCS), a co-ed JK–TO-G9 school in Etobicoke, teachers and faculty engaged in profession­al developmen­t sessions with trained psychologi­sts. These sessions put certain student behaviours into context and provided language, strategies and pro-active class activities to help alleviate anxiety and tension.

“It is important for teachers and staff to be aware that behaviours we see, whether it is nervous energy, tears or acting out, are a form of communicat­ion. Children do not simply wake up in the morning and decide to cry or be bad in class – there is a reason. We have to let them know we are here for them and ask how we can help,” says Tamara Drummond, director of student and community well-being.

Today, calm music, movement breaks and breathing strategies all help start the day off right and avoid chaos in the classroom.

A variety of online resources have also proven useful at KCS. “There is no one size fits all, but we do use Headspace to provide calm, Gonoodle for movement and meditation activities, and other useful tools such as videos. When we work with a student oneon-one, we look for applicatio­ns best suited to the child’s specific needs,” Drummond says.

All across the country we are seeing an increase mental health concerns and no school is immune from having those concerns in the student population, notes Drummond.

“For a very long time, KCS has been focused on relationsh­ips first and we talk openly about mental health and well-being. That helps students feel comfortabl­e,” she says. “The stigma is still there – as a society we still have long way to go to eliminate that – but we have been focused on the issue for so long that students are not as reticent to express themselves and ask for help without feeling that it is a bad thing. We are at a place of understand­ing and have to keep moving forward to do as much as we possibly can to help.”

 ?? ?? Teens from the Linden School reflect, refresh, and reconnect in the treetops. The Linden School photo
Teens from the Linden School reflect, refresh, and reconnect in the treetops. The Linden School photo

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