Sept. 1, 2020

Return to class calls for kindness and curiosity to keep pandemic anxiety at bay

UCalgary researcher aims to temper stress — and increase joy — for students and parents during this week’s unprecedented transition back to school
Erica Makarenko
Erica Makarenko

Once the very big question that had loomed over schools since mid-March — will they re-open in the fall?  — was answered, the uncertainty around in-person education for K-12 students shifted focus. Rather, it fractured into dozens of new questions: How will we keep kids and teachers safe? Can children effectively follow mask-wearing and social distancing protocol? What if there’s an outbreak?

Understandably, as most local schools open this week, kids as well as parents (not to mention teachers, administrators, bus drivers, custodians, and other staff) may feel they are embarking on a daunting, uncharted journey.

While questions and problems are expected as we move into this new territory during COVID-19, Erica Makarenko at the Werklund School of Education hopes her work can help mitigate undue anxiety, and contribute to mental wellness for kids and adults alike.

Dr. Makarenko, PsyD, an educational psychology senior instructor, is director of Werklund’s Integrated Services in Education (ISE) clinic, which offers both assessment and intervention services for children and families throughout Alberta.

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to physically close in March, Makarenko worked with her team to design and launch a remotely delivered intervention program for children and youth called Strong Mind, Strong Me. The program offers four free counseling sessions for children across Alberta who have struggled to cope with changes or worries the pandemic has brought on, and is aimed at providing strategies for children to manage COVID-19 and feelings related to this situation in their lives.

“The families who participated in the program during the spring and summer were grateful to have this resource available to them when many services were put on hold — children’s needs for support did not go away when schools closed,” says Makarenko. As schools re-open, the Strong Mind, Strong Me program will continue to be offered as long as the demand is there.

Meanwhile, Dr. Makarenko offers her thoughts on how parents and kids can find their way to a positive a back-to-school experience.

Be curious

“The decision to send children back to school is a stressful one for families. The worry is understandable. But if you’ve made the decision to send your kids in, we can approach this time as a social experiment: we don’t know what it’ll be like as we go along but, as parents, we can infuse the experience with a sense of curiosity. Being cynical won’t get us anywhere, but staying open and curious will help keep your child’s, and your own, mindset to a more positive one.”

Be kind

“It might sound cliché, but, we really are all in this together. We’re navigating this together. Schools and teachers will be doing their best to protect your children and themselves. Showing kindness, and remembering that teachers have the best interest of their students at heart — that will help us stay positive and reduce anxious thoughts. It’s possible there could be an outbreak. Schools may have to close. But we can be patient with one another, and be nimble in preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, together.”


“We tend to make assumptions and worry a lot about what our kids are capable of. Often, kids are more willing to follow rules than we give them credit for. Structure and boundaries are very helpful for children and provide safety.

Some students will, understandably, struggle more with masks or other protocols but it’s often us parents who complain about having to be told what to do.

"We can model good citizenship, and I think we should err on the side of trusting kids to make good decisions and giving them the benefit of the doubt in making school a successful experience.”

Embrace the ‘old normal’

“In our house, we’ll have a new after- school routine: come in, wash your hands, and throw your clothes in the hamper. But beyond that, it’ll be the same as before: Normalize the conversation by asking questions that don’t just focus on COVID protocols. You can ask, ‘What or who made you laugh today? What was tough for you today? What was funny or silly? Tell me one new fact you learned today.’ If you go a bit beyond just, ‘How was your day,’ to questions that are more direct, you’ll likely have a better conversation with your child that doesn’t only focus on the negative.”

Get a fresh perspective

“Sometimes parents need support in talking to our kids, and this can include seeking support from the community. The Strong Mind, Strong Me program will continue to be offered through to 2021 and onward for young people who might be feeling nervous or having trouble adjusting to school. We’re thrilled to offer this to our community in a time when access to psychological services may be limited for children in their schools.”

Learn more information about the ISE clinic at the Werklund School of Education.