Tips for Navigating School When You Can't Be IN School from a PhD Mom

At Chai Lifeline Canada, our mission has always been to support children and families who are living with life-threatening and lifelong illness. When COVID-19 landed, closing schools, camps and workplaces, we came to recognize that in this particular moment, everyone is impacted by illness. In this unprecedented time and circumstance, as children and families everywhere are preparing to re-enter classrooms or resume online learning – we are uniquely equipped with understanding that only comes from lived experience. 

Families who have supported their children through cancer treatments, prolonged hospital stays and limited social interactions due to compromised immune systems have first-hand experience in what it looks like to learn remotely and also what it takes to return to school after months away.  

As part of our continuing commitment to provide resources to the community at large, we are pleased to share these back to school tips from a mother of a young cancer survivor and educator, based on what they did and learned from diagnosis, through treatment and recovery.

Guest Article by Elana Shapiro, PhD

Back to school planning this year is like no other, especially for families who are caring for children with illness. Whether your child will be learning from home, the hospital, or part-time in school, we can help instill feelings of physical and mental well-being and academic success in our children as they begin a new year of learning.

TIP #1: Prioritize mental health & well-being for your entire family.

I have spoken with many parents who describe daily stress due to feelings of inadequacy in meeting their child’s educational needs during COVID-19. As a mother of a child who has undergone cancer treatment, I am acutely aware of the reality that parents rarely prioritize their own well-being while caring for their child. Consider the idea that setting aside time for yourself is akin to necessary medication. Plan for an extra 10 minutes with a cup of tea while listening to your favourite podcast or get out for a walk by yourself or with a friend. Share with your child that it is normal to be feeling nervous about returning to school. Embrace the fact that not every day will be perfect or go as planned.   School Mental Health Ontario is a useful resource that addresses mental health and well-being during COVID-19. The site also offers tips and activities for elementary students and secondary students.

TIP #2: You are your child’s superhero!

Parents and caregivers are children’s superheroes and biggest advocates. While many of you are trained superheroes in the hospital, you can also advocate for your child in school. Children need a collaborative and loving team of educators and caregivers supporting them throughout their learning. Connect with your child’s teacher(s), principal, social worker, and the special education liaison before school begins to discuss the entry plan for your child even if your child is returning to the same school. Ask for a few names of children in your child’s class so they can FaceTime, Zoom, or socially distance in a backyard before school begins to help alleviate anxiety of returning to school. It is important for your child to feel a part of their classroom community and you can help make that happen with an email or phone call. Here is an example of the first letter I wrote to my daughter’s school after she was diagnosed with cancer

Your child may benefit from an IEP (Individual Education Plan)If your child has never required an IEP in the past, you may be thinking that an IEP is unnecessary. However, if your child is dealing with a chronic illness it is possible that they could benefit from accommodations in some subject areas. An IEP is something you can discuss with your child’s school.

My daughter working on her school coursework while in the hospital.

TIP #3: Develop a daily routine with your child

School is all about routine and children will adapt to a daily routine more readily if they help create it. Routines help reduce stress because children will know what to expect throughout their day and week. If your child will be in the hospital or participating in remote learning, have them help you set up a timetable for days when they are feeling well. Encourage your child to take the lead role in creating the routine so they can feel ownership and accountability to completing the tasks. Get out those markers and paper and start creating a visual schedule. Elementary students can add activities like ‘Pack Lunchbox’, ‘Yoga Break’ or ‘Screen Time’. The visual cards should be created so they can be easily rearranged if the day doesn’t go as planned. If your child is in high school, purchase an agenda that best suits their needs. My daughter couldn’t live without a paper agenda, and a shared Google calendar worked better for my son. Finally, be gentle with yourself and your child when there are days (or weeks) when nothing on the agenda gets done.

Tip #4: Practice wearing a mask for extended periods of time

This is the time to practice wearing a mask along with your child. Start with small increments of time and add to the time each day to develop their comfort. Children need to hear that wearing a mask can be hard for adults too, but they are a necessity for our safety. Invite your child to help you choose a few different masks with designs that they will enjoy wearing. My favourite mask design is the Montreal Canadiens!

Tip #5: Get dressed and pack your knapsack and lunchbox!

It is important for your child to be surrounded with school items to instil the feeling of a routine that is different from the summer months. Organizational skills such as using a binder or unpacking a lunch box help develop school-based skills. Begin with modelling skills such as choosing clothes the night before, organizing a knapsack and school work area, and packing a lunch box. Once you model these skills a few times for your child, encourage them to take the lead role with these tasks until they demonstrate independence. In the end, it will also make your life a bit easier!

TIP #6: Focus on skills rather than content

Academics are on everyone’s minds. Take a deep breath and know that everyone is facing similar concerns with their children falling behind in subject areas. When thinking about academic subjects, try to focus on skills such as reading, writing, communicating, and math rather than specific content areas. Families in Ontario can visit the Ontario Ministry of Education website to see all curricular subjects that your child will be learning in kindergarten, elementary, and secondary grades. All curriculum is accessible per grade and subject.

Literacy: Let your child choose books to read based on their interests. If they are too tired to read, read to them. You can model skills such as fluency, new vocabulary acquisition, as well as discussing the text by reading aloud to your child. Reading includes many modes including print books, digital books, graphic novels, and videos/movies and exposing your child to all of them is important. Similar to reading, encourage your child to write about topics that they enjoy. Topics could include their favourite YouTube video, TV program, video game, or a letter to try and convince you to extend their bedtime! Almost anything that is written is an opportunity for your child to practice skills such as revisiting, organizing, editing, and publishing. Younger students can also visit free websites to develop different literacy skills through interactive games. Finally, remember that public libraries also have online borrowing services!

Math: Does the idea of teaching fractions or integers instill anxiety in you? Unless you work in the field of mathematics, most parents feel anxious about teaching math concepts to their children. There was no way I could help my daughter with advanced functions and calculus and vectors in grade 11 while she spent the year in the hospital. Khan Academy is an amazing, free resource for students from kindergarten to university level who are learning from home or who may benefit from revisiting a concept taught in class. They offer straightforward videos on every math concept taught in school. Khan Academy also offers lessons in Literacy, High School Science, and Computer Programming.

TIP # 7: Socializing is an important part of school.

Socialization is something that is difficult to come by these days, but may be one of the most important areas to plan for your child to help support their mental health and well-being. An online school class can provide for some socialization, but depending on how the class is run, your child will also benefit from conversation without structured adult guidance. Help your child plan a virtual playdate to chat with old friends as well as new friends in the class. Similar to when you invite a child to your house, these may need to be scheduled in advance. Give your child some independence during these conversations so they can feel comfortable getting silly which will hopefully lead to giggles and laughter.      

A note about screen time:

These days most of our social connections may be through video conferencing or playing online games. Discuss with your child what they think is a reasonable amount of screen time per day and plan for that in their schedule. Recently, I listened to a grandmother describe how her grandchildren take turns calling her every morning to read her a book. What a great way to practice reading and be social! There will be days when your child is feeling unwell and will be watching Netflix or the Disney Channel all day. On those days, remind yourself you are doing a great job as a parent, curl up next to them, and enjoy the show.

Wishing everyone a healthy and happy beginning to the new school year,

Elana Shapiro, PhD

Dr. Elana Shapiro is an instructor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and is a former school principal and elementary teacher.   She also works with families to help guide and support their children’s educational needs in schools through a collaborative, interdisciplinary model. She sits on the Haematology and Oncology Family Advisory Council at Sick Kids Hospital. To support her mental health and well-being, Dr. Shapiro enjoys nature trails in Toronto, reading picture books, and baking goodies for her full household of hungry teenagers!