Column: Have that back-to-school talk

Dr. Rob Lees asked mental-health colleagues what parents can do to help prepare kids for the return to the classroom. Here's what they said.

In these last days of summer, parents are readying their children for school. It’s a busy time full of shopping for new clothes, books, backpacks and school supplies.  But don’t forget the mental health preparation for school. School can be an exciting time, but it can also cause anxiety for kids. I asked some of my mental-health colleagues what they think parents can do to help prepare their kids to return to the classroom, and here’s what they had to say:

1. Have the “tech talk.” Discuss your expectations about screen time – that is how much time during the day your child spends texting, on the phone, playing video games or online. Have an idea in advance as to what you feel is reasonable, what can actually be enforced and what consequences  are appropriate.

2. Talk about bullying. There are some key messages here. Don’t be a bystander. Don’t be an instigator. Don’t be a victim.  Hold your head high and understand that bullying is a weakness – bullies don’t know how to get what they need without using force.  It’s also a good idea to talk about appropriate online conduct. Have a rule like, “Don’t do or say anything online or in text that you wouldn’t do or say in person.”

3. Discuss attitudes towards learning.  Kids in Canada have access to high-quality education that isn’t available to millions of children around the world. Your kids have likely heard of Malala Yousafzai – the girl who was shot in Pakistan for defying a ban on schooling for girls – and how in many countries, girls especially don’t get to go to school like boys do. Help them to see that having the opportunity to learn is as important as what they will learn. It’s  a privilege.

4. Review their sleep routine. Studies have shown a significant relationship between proper sleep habits and school achievement. A tired brain is an inefficient engine.

5. Seek balance. A healthy life is usually about finding the balance of work, school, friends, activity and service. Recent science has shown that giving to others provides rewards for the giver. Encourage your children to think about what they can do as good citizens of their school community. Contributing isn’t about being the best, it’s about doing your best.

6. Talk about sex, alcohol, drugs and dating. If you have a child in middle or high school, it’s important to have open conversation about these topics. Remember that your children will develop their own strategies on these issues, but you can help them by talking about what you expect, about what’s healthy and, most importantly, by talking and listening in a way that creates an open dialogue. Research has shown that kids are exposed to pornography by Grade  6. What they think about this will likely be determined by their peers. It definitely will be if you don’t talk to them about it.

7.  School years are formative years. Help your children realize that they are defining themselves. The good news is that if we don’t like the identity we have created, we can change and form a different identity. Adaptability is a critical component of intelligence.

8. Ask them to watch how they talk to themselves. What does that inner voice say when they are frustrated, life is hard or they challenged in some new way. Does that voice say, It’s hopeless, or does it say, It may be hard, but I can do it!

It’s important to send your children off to school with the tools they need for the classroom. Preparing them mentally for their return to the classroom will also give them valuable tools for life.

Dr. Robert Lees, R.Psych is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Chilliwack

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