An empty classroom at Vanier Secondary School in Whitehorse on Aug. 12. In addition to the usual teaching challenges, educators will also be instructing on infection control. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

How to cope with back-to-school anxiety during COVID-19

Mental health and learning organizations in Yukon are teaming up to offer advice to parents

Nervousness is a part of every school year, but this year social anxiety is being compounded by social distancing. Students will be worried about making new friends while avoiding new cases of COVID-19.

In addition to the usual challenges with multiplication tables and grammar, educators will also be instructing on infection control.

It all adds up to more stress for teachers, parents and students.

“Remember to breathe,” reminds Stephanie Hammond, executive director of Whitehorse’s Learning Disabilities Association of Yukon Centre for Learning.

In an effort to help manage the anxiety of back to school this year, the centre is offering an online workshop on Aug. 20 for parents about back-to-school anxiety, in partnership with Tanya Kutschera from the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Yukon chapter.

The workshop has been offered in previous years, since anxiety is a common feeling for many students, even without COVID-19 complications.

Sometimes it can manifest as a child saying they have a stomach ache and don’t want to go to school — every morning.

“It’s not just about content and academic skills. It’s about how we feel about ourselves as a learner, and all the emotions that are going on with that,” Hammond explained. “Anxiety has already been increasingly on our radar, in terms of the barriers that it can pose for learning. With COVID, we recognized that this is really going to exacerbate things.”

This year, it’s not just students who are coping with anxiety around returning to classes.

In a May 27 release, Statistics Canada said that half of Canadians surveyed reported worsening mental health since the onset of physical distancing.

Most participants, according to the survey, experienced at least one symptom of anxiety, while 41 per cent of respondents age 15 to 24 reported symptoms “consistent with moderate or severe anxiety.”

In a previous year’s anxiety workshop, Hammond said Boston-based researcher and behavioural analyst Jessica Minahan attended to provide information to parents to help understand the “brain science” and origins behind anxiety disorders.

One leading theory is that our base instincts — the ones that had us evaluating fight, flight, or freeze when faced with a sabre-toothed cat — are active in the amygdala, a part of our brains.

“You can get stuck in your amygdala, like a broken record with a scratch on it. You’re just fixated on that one particular thing that is causing you that anxiety,” she said.

As anxiety increases it becomes harder and harder to access our prefrontal cortex, another part of the brain that focuses on working memory and management skills.

Rather than giving students a chance to stew by taking a walk or getting a drink of water, she recommends trying an activity that uses the frontal cortex and interrupts the loop of anxious thoughts.

“So things like Sudoku games or Where’s Waldo or an adult colouring book or even ‘Stop, look around and name five things that you see that are green.’ Something that helps to move someone from their amygdala, back to their prefrontal cortex. These activities are incompatible with worrying,” she said.

In a more long-term situation, she also recommends mindfulness programs for both children and parents. The Canadian Mental Health Association’s Yukon chapter has information on mindfulness workshops that can help people recognize and cope with anxiety when it happens.

Anxiety Canada has guidelines for talking to high school and elementary-aged children about COVID-19. Among its suggestions are to keep an open dialogue and ask children what specific worries they might have.

This week parents will receive COVID-19 Operational Plans for each school, likely to provide more information and assuage some concerns during a time of uncertainty.

Hammond said opening communication between teachers and parents will remain important.

“Another big component of it is just acknowledging that not all students are going to be showing up to the class on the first day, ready to learn. A lot of them will be hanging out in that broken record of worries and concerns and stresses in their amygdala,” she said.

“I know that Yukon educators are aware of this, they’ll be understanding and supporting students through this process,” she said.

One other, final tip for dealing with the stress of change? Remember to look for the upsides, because they almost always exist.

For example, Hammond explained that students had an opportunity to learn differently when the school year was unexpectedly interrupted in March when the pandemic began.

“There was such a broad range of responses to that,” she said.

For many families, that created very real strains, from rising internet costs to time off work. For some students, it brought anxiety and isolation. But for others, it also opened up a path to online, flexible and remote learning that worked well for them.

“Tutors had greater availability, students had greater flexibility and a greater capacity to process that information,” she said. “So I think in addition to really acknowledging the struggles that people are experiencing right now, it’s also an opportunity to look and see how things can be different — how in some ways, things can be better.”

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com

mental health

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