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Back-to-school support calls for a holistic approach


The pandemic hasn’t been easy for kids. When schools were shut down in Spring, we began to see that youth were craving in-person connections. They missed their friends and in houses with family conflicts, kids felt disconnected from trusted adults with whom they can share their frustrations. 

“Our students are dealing with a sense of loss, at different levels: loss of contact with peers, loss of learning, loss of connection with caring adults, loss of income, loss of stability in the home, loss of dependable food… all kinds of loss.”

Now, as children and families start the new school year while COVID-19 is still a risk, we’re all learning to navigate the new reality of back-to-school.

All of this comes with a layer of stress and anxiety—stress that has the power to overwhelm entire families and may pose certain risks that we need to manage properly. Children, especially those in more vulnerable situations, are faced with unique challenges that could contribute to this stress and result in life-long impacts to their education or well-being. 

These challenges take on many forms. Some children will not be able to rely on the nutritious snacks offered during after school programs, many kids do not have access to counselling and recreational activities they depend on, and some do not have the technology they need to complete their homework. 

There are many questions about how our communities can alleviate these challenges for vulnerable kids. At United Way, we’ve been hard at work with our partners to navigate the best practices for reducing life-long mental health issues that may occur as a result of our new reality. 

What is toxic stress and why is it important to consider? 

In 2019, United Way published a story called “Are Ottawa’s Kids Under Stress?”, which looked at toxic stress and how it affects local children through the lens of data analytics and with key insights from Dr. Paul Rumeliotis, Medical Officer of Health and CEO of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit.   

We all experience a certain amount of stress in our lives, and not all types of stress are actually bad for us. Toxic stress, however, is caused by things like abuse, neglect, extreme poverty, violence, household dysfunction and food scarcity[i]—hardships that can be detrimental to mental and physical health in the long term.

Toxic stress results in prolonged activation of the stress response. In a toxic stress situation, there is a lack of caregiver support, reassurance or emotional attachment, which prevents the buffering of the stress response and the return of the body to its normal functioning.

In many cases, toxic stress has been brought on, or made worse, by the pandemic. Children are dealing with their own fears and uncertainties, while seeing their parents and caregivers struggle.

Research has shown that negative experiences during a child’s early years—such as those resulting from toxic stress—are harmful to brain development and can have lasting, lifelong impacts.[ii]

The added stressors of COVID-19 on racialized families

For many vulnerable families, toxic stress is already a present in their lives. With the added stressors of COVID-19, many vulnerable children are at a greater risk of  falling behind. This is particularly important to keep in mind when thinking of racialized and marginalized youth in our communities. These communities are already facing greater risks and having kids fall increasingly behind could lead to potentially heightened racial justice issues. 

“We know that racialized children are at higher risk of being labeled as having ADHD and other behavioural issues, so how will that look? How will that manifest at home and in the community? How will that play out long term? We know a lot of the experiences people have in their childhood can lead to ramifications in later adulthood,” says Shannon Black, Program Manager at Britannia Woods Community House.

“We know that society doesn’t have an understanding of certain groups of individuals and how they manifest their emotional and social needs,” she adds.

“As racialized children get older, their behaviour is going to be presented in very negative ways without understanding that these behaviours are remnants of the needs disparities that they are currently navigating. These behaviours are rooted in mental unwellness not criminality. But because of the nature of our systems, Black bodies will be overly criminalized as a result.”

How to mitigate toxic stress for vulnerable families?
It starts with parents.

Joanne Boyd, a trainer at the Parents Resource Centre as well as a parent coach and educator, says that, “one of the things we know about kids is that they need a calm, nurturing, and responsive adult to coregulate and that’s what leads to self-regulation, better behaviours, and adaptability. So the idea of really supporting parents to stay calm and manage their stress so that they can then be that buffer for their children is really important.” 

"The quality of parent-child interactions is affected by the stress that the parent is bearing. So if you have a vulnerable family who is worried about food security, housing security, employment and they’re trying to home school multiple children with unreliable wifi, we as service providers need to step back and think about what kind of supports we can put in place to address those problems.”

Michael Hone of the Crossroads Children’s Mental Health Centre says that for younger kids and even adolescents, if that holistic piece isn’t taken care of or focused on, what usually happens is that children experience chronic stress as a result of those basic necessities not being met. 

“All of this has a direct impact on the child’s development in the context of their brain. Making school extremely difficult,” he says. 

In speaking to community experts, it’s clear that holistic support is critical—by ensuring that parents’ primary needs are met; i.e. food security, housing security, employment opportunities, technology support, and financial stability, we can free up space in their lives for them to focus on the needs and well-being of their children during this back-to-school transition. 

By continuing to bolster a holistic approach that encompasses the basic needs of parents and families, such as meal programs, financial application assistance, mental health services, subsidized housing, and employment assistance, our communities can ensure that the weight of stress on children is reduced, and that the long-term implications of COVID-19 don’t spill over into their education. 

The importance of a child’s success in school

Without access to healthy snack programs, after-school homework help, recreational activities and social programs throughout the year, youth in low-income neighbourhoods are more likely to drop out of school—continuing the cycle of poverty. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way in which it has increased disparities that many vulnerable families already face, it is important that our communities continue to provide support to families in the best way we can.

Almost 50 per cent of children start school without a proper foundation for learning in some Ottawa neighbourhoods—an issue that will only be exacerbated by COVID-19. In our rural areas, home internet can be unreliable for young learners, not to mention costly for families. Without support, vulnerable kids may end up falling behind.

We need to be working together as a system to support children going back to school or learning online and parents who are trying to work. We [different social sectors] might be specialized in one area but right now is a time where we do need to integrate the various supports available to families. For example, it is important to be able to say well ‘I know someone who can get you a snowsuit or a new backpack for school’. Families need complex support from knowledgeable front-line agencies who are working together.

Participation in school activities improves students’ grades, self-esteem, leadership and career skills, and relationships with both peers and adults—ultimately improving graduation rates. Without many of the same school supports in place, it is important that we find new ways to support youth in our communities, and that starts with parents.

Where United Way fits in

It’s with these insights that communities across East Ontario are better capturing the spirit of holistic support for families struggling with the realities of the pandemic. 

For months now, United Way East Ontario has been bringing together a table of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others, to support the most vulnerable through the effects of COVID-19. In the spring we brought this table together to discuss how COVID-19 has had an even greater impact on vulnerable communities, specifically racialized and gendered communities. 

By taking into account a person’s gender, race, sexuality, geography or socio-economic status, we have a clearer picture of the risks they face, and in turn, what support they may need. These same insights can be applied to the way we look at support for parents moving into a new school year. 

Thanks to our donors and in partnership with the Emergency Community Support Fund, we have been able to support countless programs across East Ontario that ensure the basic needs of parents and kids are met, reducing stress and increasing the well-being of entire families.

Together with our partners, we have:

– Strengthened culturally-appropriate crisis lines, mental health supports and system navigation services through initiatives like Counselling Connect.

–  Ensured people have access to life’s essentials, such as food, through food hamper programs at multiple different partners across the region.

– Helped newcomers and refugees understand and navigate unfamiliar systems, especially during times of crisis, through housing and settlement services.

–  Supported families through the challenges posed by e-learning, through programs like ‘parents as teachers’ virtual supports.

– Provided Indigenous women and children fleeing violence with a way out, thanks to our partnership with Minwaashin Lodge. initiatives like the Ontario Partner Assault Response Program.

– Distributed PPE and non-medical face masks to vulnerable populations, and so much more.

United Way East Ontario has been able to ensure that families receive the support they need. 

Understanding that these recent back-to-school decisions have been extremely difficult for parents, United Way East Ontario has been working hard to bolster community services as we move forward into the next leg of this COVID-19 journey—ensuring that no family, parent, or child, falls through the cracks.  

Needs will continue to evolve. You can ensure families get the support they need this school year.

[i] Franke, Hillary A. Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment. Children (Basel). 2014 Dec.; 1(3); 390-402; Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. Toxic Stress. Available online at See also Gunnar, Megan R. PhD, Herrera, Adriana MA, and Hostinar, Camelia E. BS. Stress and Early Brain Development. University of Minnesota, USA. June 2009. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development.

[ii] Franke, supra. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3. Updated Edition.




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