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Answered by Lawrence Barns, President & CEO, Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario

At our most recent Educators’ Institute, Dr. Todd Cunningham and his team from the University of Toronto/OISE warned teachers that students with LDs, in particular, could struggle with the changes to school environments due to Covid-19. Dr. Cunningham explained that working memory is like a desk inside your brain, holding all the information that you can deal with at any one time. The size of that “desk” varies from person to person and hence students will have varying levels of information they can gather before their “desk” runs out of room. Often, students with LDs have a smaller “desk”, or working memory capacity, than their peers.

As a parent, you may be wondering why this insight has anything to do with preparing your child to go back to school. Actually, it’s vital you understand this principle and know how to help keep the “desk” clean of clutter so your child can focus on the job of learning; it will directly impact your child’s experience going back to the classroom this September.

So let’s consider what could pile up on that “desk” and leave little room for learning to take place:

  • New routines – This could be anything from a new walk or bus ride, wearing a mask, navigating a lunch break, and a more rigid schedule than your child was used to when learning at home, to a new school, a new teacher, and new classmates.
  • Picking up on your anxiety – Our kids do not miss a thing. You already know that. What messages are they picking up from you?
  • Their own thoughts and fears – You are not your child’s only source of information and you don’t always know how they are interpreting new information. More importantly, if they sense your anxiety they may bottle up their own concerns and internalize them.
  • Constantly changing responsibilities and expectations - The start of a new term takes a while to get used to and challenges change over the first few weeks. Clearing off your child’s “desk” is not a one-time fix. You may have to check in often to make sure that the clutter doesn’t build up again.

So, what can you do to help your child as much as possible on the first day back and then continue to support them going forward?

  1. Consider what routines can be established ahead of the first day of school. Can you practice putting on, wearing, and taking off a mask? Can you take the walk to school a few times to ease them into the year? Maybe you can have a few dry runs with the alarm clock and morning routine. When students know what to expect it can help to ease anxiety around the first day of school.
  2. Take a good “look in the mirror” at your own fears around your child going back to school. This will allow you to understand the messages you are transmitting to your kids, whether consciously or not. If you are sending your child back to class, what are the upsides and why did you make the decision? Talk very openly (and age-appropriately, of course) and keep your kids up to speed.
  3. Ask your kids about their concerns, both about the usual back to school challenges and their specific Covid-19 related concerns. Let them know they can always talk to you about anything on their minds and you will always be there to support them.
  4. Build a feedback loop with your kids. Any parent who has asked, “how was your day” knows you can get little to nothing in return. But, if you give up at the first shrug, the loop just fell apart. You have no real feedback, so try again. Set aside time to connect. Maybe it’s on the weekends on a walk or in the car on the way to an activity. Reflect on the past week and see how they have done, where they feel overwhelmed and discuss actions to help them work through their concerns.
  5. Talk to your child’s teachers. While you may have many conversations that do not need raising at school, sometimes a struggle is going to need a team approach to resolve. Teachers are just as willing to help your child cope as you are, and your child will benefit from consistent messaging when parents and teachers work together to help deal with their concerns.

Finally, help your kids and yourself by adopting an attitude of kindness and understanding. We have all seen our world change, teachers will be dealing with it as much as your kids. So too, will the school bus driver, school office staff, and even the crossing guard. Occasionally, they and you will get things wrong. Help your child by making sure you do not blame immediately, judge negatively or get angry. Instead, employ empathy, understanding, and a deep breath before responding. Your child will watch your example and follow suit.

Oh, and when things don’t go exactly according to plan, be kind to yourself as well!