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How to help kids cope with back-to-school stress

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Art activities like drawing, beading or weaving are one way teachers and parents can add imagination into learning and help kids ease back into in-person classes, says U of A education professor Alexandra Fidyk. (Photo: Supplied)

Kids anxious about heading back to school after a year of pandemic lockdown can best be helped by parents and teachers getting themselves grounded and present, says a University of Alberta education expert.

Alexandra Fidyk

Connecting with how their bodies respond to stress or fear can help adults deal with any stress or trauma children are experiencing, said Alexandra Fidyk, a professor in the Faculty of Education.

“Once you are in an attuned relationship with yourself, you can let your attention move to others without leaving your body,” said Fidyk, an expert in trauma studies and somatic, or mind-body psychology as it relates to teaching, learning, culture and the arts.

Some youngsters returning to school will be anxious after a year of at-home learning, which means the adults around them need to be aware of their own anxieties, said Fidyk.

“When we’ve experienced fear, excessive worry or both, we are often dysregulated, meaning our physiology has been engaged in fight, flight or freeze responses or a combination of them. These are natural self-protecting reactions, but they can kick in when we’re not in danger, and over a long period of time, fear and worry wear us down. They make us constrict, lose focus, drain energy and impact vitality.

“For most, our capacities have shrunk during the pandemic. We have experienced less social engagement, so people may have fallen into a sense of isolation or even inundation.”

That means parents may not be in the best frame of mind to help children grappling with making the shift from home to school, said Fidyk.

“If we are overwhelmed, and a child comes to us and they are also overwhelmed, it is unlikely that we can attune to them. The range and intensity of what we can handle will be smaller.”

Photo by Kelly Sikkema 

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Only when we feel safe can we regulate ourselves and be able to relate to another, to validate or empathize with them, she said.

One of the most important ways people can regain their balance is by reconnecting with their physicality and imagination, suggested Fidyk, whose research explores methods like body mapping that teachers can use in their classrooms.

It can be as simple as alternately hand-clapping our thighs for a few minutes while breathing more deeply or moving freely to the beat of enjoyable music.

“If we develop self-awareness such as noticing the sensations – not emotions – going on within us and tend to those sensations as needed, then we are able to be more engaged in the moment. Doing this helps us self-regulate and builds capacity and resilience.”

Through such awareness, more “aliveness” returns, Fidyk said.

“Through connection, the student will feel seen, heard and understood where our presence and regulation helps them feel better. So when they need help, we can actually comfort and reassure them.”

Some children likely flourished at home during the lockdown, she noted.

Self-directed learners who had no problem completing their assignments may have gained new confidence and perhaps even developed new interests, Fidyk noted, adding that integrating choices and options into their assignments will continue to encourage this new growth.

Others would have struggled.

“Some kids needed structure, predictable routines and the social engagement that classrooms provided; students might have been unable to complete assignments, and that could have caused stress.”

In returning to the classroom, children face a new set of worries ranging from catching COVID-19 to leaving at-home support systems they’ve developed over the past year.

“Some will feel excited to go back and see their teachers and friends, but they might also feel fearful or overwhelmed.”

They may also struggle being back in a more structured environment of sitting at a desk for most of the day.

Other children — particularly those who are part of a close nuclear family, newcomer or multigenerational family — might feel at a loss if they were being supported in their learning at home by a relative.

“For some kids, there might be a sense of abandonment if someone at home was comforting that student, and the child now leaves that person to go back to school where a close relationship is not to be found.”

There are several ways adults can help stay grounded and ease students’ transition back to school, Fidyk suggested.

Fidyk’s research has been funded by ​​the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Alberta Advisory Committee For Educational Studies, and Research Impact Canada, Vice-President (Research & Innovation), University of Alberta Library and Kule Institute for Advanced Study Knowledge Mobilization & Skills.

| By Bev Betkowski

Bev is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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