What We will Remember and other Thoughts on the Pandemic as Halton Families Meet the Return to School Challenge

By Nikki Taylor, Senior Manager, Early Years and Family Supports, Oakville Parent-Child Centre

In the middle of March, as I was closing my office up for what I thought would be a couple of weeks, I saved this picture as my screensaver.

Little did I know at the time, that six months later, we would still be living in this seemingly alternate universe. It feels like a lifetime ago. The picture of this little girl and her chick is still on my computer and each day when I look at it, I am reminded of what is really important during this time of stress and uncertainty.

As children, families, and teachers contemplate the return to school and academic learning, I have been listening closely to parents about what they both feel – and fear. For many, finding nuggets of hope and optimism strengthens their resiliency and ability to carry on. For others, the worry and fear overwhelms them and the reptilian brain takes control creating a propensity for instinctive fight, flight, or freeze responses. Fear and anxiety want comfort and certainty, and we know when it comes to COVID-19 there is no certainty. We can, however, find comfort and support in each other, maintain our sense of optimism, take hold of what we can control, and attempt to let go of what does not aid us.

So how do we take back our sense of control? How do we find our courage, our creativity, and soft hearts in order to protect and guide our children?

First and foremost, we cannot project adult fears and mindsets that negatively influence our children’s view of the world and their healthy growth and development. We must avoid righteous indignation and judgment and find a way to work together with compassion, tolerance, and a collaborative spirit. Our children need us to do this. And they need to watch us do this.

I am reminded of a quote by Dr. Hiam Ginott, teacher, child psychologist, psychotherapist, author, and parent educator.

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

Every day parents and teachers have the opportunity to get up, take a few breaths, find gratitude, and make a conscious choice to create a healthy and nurturing environment for the children in their lives; to create a warm, sunny day out of the rain and cold.

I believe that this school year will not be about academics. I believe that it will be about the chance to strengthen our resiliency and relationships, and build deep, nurturing interdependence. Now more than ever, we understand how interconnected and reliant we are on each other – in our families, in our communities, and on a global level.

Finally, as I look for the silver lining in all this, I hope it will be the opportunity for parents and professionals to realign their relationships with children in the way nature intended. To restore the adult’s rightful place – in charge and with the responsibility and wisdom to lead our children through this pandemic. Now is the time to show them that they can depend on us and trust us to do what is best for them.

Collectively we can do this. When this pandemic has ended, what will stand out most in our memories is how we treated each other.

Cupid, Chocolate, & Social-emotional Development

By Melissa Graves, Health Promoter, Halton Region; Our Kids Network Early Years Mental Health Committee Member

Along with all the fun of trading Valentine cards, paper hearts, and enjoying treats, Valentine’s Day is also a great opportunity to think about and celebrate what we love, appreciate, and value in the important relationships in our lives. It can also bring to mind how those relationships develop.

It All Starts in the Early Years

Developing skills for healthy and strong relationships begins in the early years, by laying the foundation for expressing a range of emotions and healthy social-emotional development.

The foundations of social competence that develop in the first six years of life are linked to emotional well-being and affect a child’s ability to form successful relationships throughout life. As a child develops into adulthood, these same social skills are essential for lasting friendships; healthy intimate relationships; effective parenting; the ability to have successful relationships in the workplace; and to contribute to the well being of the community. (Centre on the Developing Child Harvard University, 2004)

Dad and daughter smiling and wearing heart-shaped glasses for Valentine's Day.

Early Experiences are Important to Mental Health

Research has also shown that early experiences shape the developing brain and underpin an individual’s mental health and well-being. The social-emotional skills developed in the first six years of a child’s life are linked to their later success in school, work and ability to form healthy relationships.

Watch this video by the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University about serve-and-return interactions. It illustrates how to use this strategy to strengthen positive interactions between caregivers and children, and shows how caregivers can use everyday moments to build relationships that also foster social competence.

To learn more and access helpful resources about social-emotional development in the early years, visit the Early Years Mental Health Toolkit.

Halloween! Exciting, Fun…and Stressful!

Maggie Perrins, Resource Consultant, Halton Region,
Our Kids Network Early Years Mental Health Committee Member

Halloween is an exciting time for our little ones!  The countdown has been on since the end of September.  Children are excited about deciding on a costume, and are anticipating dressing up for school, Halloween parties, scary sights, and of course, the treats!

As with any exciting time, there is also stress for children – and adults. Feeling stressed can translate to challenging behavior in younger children.  Dr. Stuart Shanker, a renowned expert on child development and self-regulation, says that recognizing the difference between what is misbehavior and what we call stress behavior is important.  Misbehaviour implies that a child could have acted differently. They are aware that they should not have done something. Stress behavior is when the child is not fully aware of what they are doing and has limited capacity to act differently.

Help children self-regulate to lighten stress load

Stress behavior can be caused by a high stress load.  Adding to a child’s stress load, even with fun and exciting stress may cause stress behaviours.  As educators, we want children to have fun at Halloween, but it is important to recognize that it can also be a very stressful time for them. “Self-regulation refers to how well we manage stress, how much energy we expend, and how well we recover,” Dr. Shanker explains. Helping children to self-regulate during these times, lightens their stress load and, ideally, can prevent stress behaviours.

Ideas for lightening the stress load

  • Encourage children to get a good night’s sleep before the big event. Sleep is essential for coping and recovering from stress.
  • Give more time to complete tasks and limit demands.
  • Provide down-time in class and help them practice mindfulness.
  • Prepare children in advance of changes to their daily routines. Classroom parties and costume parades add to the stress load for some children.
  • Maintain a quiet area for children who need a break from sensory overload during Halloween events and other celebrations.
  • Limit sweet treats or make healthy Halloween treats in the classroom.
  • Co-self-regulate!  Be present with children and slow-down. They can sense and take on other people’s stress. Take the time before class starts to consciously regulate yourself so that you can be genuine in your tone and body language.

Remember…exciting times can also be stressful times for both adults and children.  Plan ahead to lighten the load and be mindful of stressors in your students and your own children.  Limiting these stressors can prevent stress behaviours so everyone can enjoy the fun and spirit of Halloween!

To learn more about self-regulation and how it relates to the mental well-being of children, explore the Halton Early Years Mental Health Toolkit.

Take it further by exploring the Executive Function and Self-Regulation area of the Early Years Mental Health Tools and Resources section

Back to School Stress – 7 Ways to Help at Home

By Nikki Taylor, Senior Manager, Early Years and Family Supports, Oakville Parent-Child Centre

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” Fred Rogers, host of the television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

After a fun-filled and relaxing summer, it’s time for children to head back to school. Some families rejoice in anticipation of getting back to the routine and structure that the school year brings, while others feel reluctance, butterflies in the tummy, or more intense anxiety about the situation.  Even for those who are excited, there is always an element of stress associated with this familiar transition.

Positive stress is a good thing, and in fact, an essential part of healthy child development. According to the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University:

“Positive stress refers to moderate, short-lived stress responses, such as brief increases in heart rate or mild changes in the body’s stress hormone levels. This kind of stress is a normal part of life, and learning to adjust to it is an essential feature of healthy development. Adverse events that provoke positive stress responses tend to be those that a child can learn to control and manage well with the support of caring adults, and which occur against the backdrop of generally safe, warm, and positive relationships. The challenges of meeting new people, dealing with frustration, entering a new child care setting, getting an immunization, or overcoming a fear of animals each can be positive stressors if a child has the support needed to develop a sense of mastery. This is an important part of the normal developmental process.”

So it turns out that the stress experienced by children as they head back to school can be good for them; but how do we ensure that it remains in the “positive stress” category?

Here are 7 tips to consider as families make the transition to school this fall:

  1. Children express stress in different ways. Know how children show you they are stressed.
  2. Stress is contagious. Be aware of your own stress and do your best to manage it well. The kids are watching.
  3. “Name it to tame it.” Dr. Dan Siegel talks about the importance of naming feelings for children. Stress is reduced when we acknowledge children’s feelings rather than denying or distracting them. Mix things up a little and try using some new emotional vocabulary. This list of feelings can help get you started.
  4. Get back to basics. Recommend a consistent routine, healthy nutrition, physical activity and ample sleep all help to reduce stress for everyone.
  5. Children’s stress is significantly reduced when parents are present, focused, calm and available. Ask parents to consider scaling back a little on the activities. Busy lives often result in chaos and disconnection. Spending time together, such as family meals, is shown in research to help build relationships, lower stress and is a wonderful way to connect with each other.
  6. Pillow talk is a bedtime strategy that can be highly effective in reducing stress. Tell parents to allow enough time for a child to relax, process the day and talk with you about anything that may come up. They should focus on listening rather than advising or solving problems. Children who have regular bedtime talk sessions with parents come to count on them and they often help children to relax and sleep better. This can take quite a lot of time, so parents need to be prepared.
  7. Let parents know about the benefits of staying connected to the school. When children see that parents are interested and engaged in positive ways to the school community, it tells them that school is important and also helps parents to understand some of what their child is experiencing every day.
Father talks to his son

Other Resources for Families

For more information on Family Assets (the everyday interactions, values, skills and relationships families can focus on to help them thrive), ourkidsnetwork.ca/Public/Families-Matter.

keepconnected.searchinstitute.org
Keep Connected offers all kinds of families—and organizations that support them—ideas, activities, and experiences to help build strong family relationships. Our goal is to strengthen family relationships to help kids be and become their best selves.

haltoniparent.ca
Halton iparent gives families easy, online access to Halton-based parenting programs, plus helpful, relevant information and resources on a wide range of child development topics in the Information Hub.

Popsicles, splash pads, barbecues….and tears?

By Mary Tabak, Our Kids Network Developmental Assets Manager

Keeping your cool when kids’ behavior heats up

Yes, summertime. We all look forward to the relaxing days, kids out of school, family barbecues, and summer fun. But when you have children in your life, there can be power struggles, temper tantrums, hurt feelings, and banged up knees. How we handle these moments can mean the difference between a good day and a bad day for our kids. 

I remember one summer day many years ago when my five-year-old packed his bags and decided to move out. People had been coming and going in the house all day, as I rushed to prepare for a large family barbecue. He walked into the kitchen, Spiderman luggage in hand, and told me that he was going to live with grandma. Without thinking I said, “Go ahead, but you better start walking now because you won’t get there until tomorrow.” He turned on his heels and walked out the door. 

I watched as he marched along the sidewalk. Fortunately those few moments, as I followed him, gave me the time needed realize how my thoughtless response had hurt him. Of course, I caught up with him, hugged him tight, and apologized. I told him how much I love him. Then we sat on the sidewalk and figured out how he was feeling and why. 

Have you ever had a parenting moment when you blurted out a thoughtless, hurtful comment? Have you wished you could take back something you just said to your child? Of course you have. 

When children and youth’s behavior is challenging, we can be triggered by their actions or things they may say. But before we can help them, we need to regulate our own emotions and get to an internal calm space, so that we can truly support their needs.

These are a few things that I could have said to give myself time to think, reassure him, and diffuse the situation:

  • I can see you are upset and that’s okay. 
  • Something is hard for you right now.  How can I help? 
  • We can figure this out together.  Tell me more.
  • Can you help me understand what you need?
  • I care about you and would hate to see you go.
  • Let’s come up with another solution together.

Think about keeping statements and questions like this where you can see and practice them regularly, until they become natural and habitual. (My kids have memories of me running to the fridge door when I needed a few seconds to think!) A simple strategy like modelling emotional regulation will build meaningful relationships with your kids.

Loving mom talks sweetly to son outside

Thanks to our friends at Reach Out Centre for Kids (ROCK) a Halton agency for child and youth mental health, for developing this resource, What You Can Say When Children are Upset.