School-age

I saw so many Facebook ads for Outschool that I finally signed my kid up

I was pretty skeptical that a website offering Pokemon and Fortnite classes could be worth it, but after trying Outschool, my kid and I were sold.

If you’re on Facebook or Instagram and you’re a parent, chances are your news feed is inundated with ads from Outschool. Like me, you probably scrolled by, glancing at it, but not giving it much thought. But a few weeks ago, as I thought about the summer break, the potential for lockdowns to continue, and my jam-packed work-from-home schedule, the concept started to sound more and more intriguing. So as the April school break approached and Toronto’s weather was forecast to be cold and rainy that week, I decided to pull the trigger and see what Outschool is all about.

What exactly is Outschool anyway?

Founded in 2015, Outschool was designed to offer supplemental learning for homeschooled children. But with the pandemic in full swing, the educational platform has become a source of learning and social interaction for kids of all ages, in all types of schools.

The diverse selection of courses, classes, and groups are designed for kids from 3-17 and are managed by experienced and independent educators (or companies) via an interactive, live video platform. Those who wish to teach don’t necessarily have to possess a teaching degree, but they must undergo a background check and be approved to teach via the platform based on their credentials and experience. Parents and kids leave reviews, providing valuable feedback and a level of accountability to do well. At present, there are more than 100,000 live online classes serving 174 countries.

What kind of classes does Outschool have?

The class topics are super broad. There are classes on drawing, dancing, singing, pets, mindfulness, chess, gaming, guitar and astronomy. Is your kid into Pokemon or Fortnite? They can learn how to play. Does your child need help with reading? Individualized sessions can be tailored to their age and reading level. You name it, there’s very likely a class for it.

My son, who’s nine, made a long list of classes he found interesting and we narrowed it down together, landing on four camps for the week: one on video-game design taught by a teacher from Vancouver-based UME Academy, one on chess tactics and strategies held by an accredited teacher and chess champion, and a stop-motion video class for beginners. For a fun Friday activity, we booked him in for an hour-long Minecraft-themed escape room where the kids solve puzzles. After I password-protected the main account, I gave my son the link to the child view to open on his Chromebook where he could access his schedule, required materials (if any), meeting links and other information in time for each class.

What are the schedules like and how much do classes cost?

Outschool has one-off classes that last about hour, or ones that are held at the same hour every day for a week. There are also ongoing classes that take place over the course of several weeks, on the same day and time each week. Subscription-based classes are also held on a recurring basis. Usually, there are several time slots from which to choose, giving parents flexibility to select times that best fit the family’s schedule.

Use the intuitive search filters to see classes by date and time, age range, price and/or subject. Each listing states the frequency, date and time options (usually in Eastern Standard Time), age range and price in U.S. dollars. Pricing can be as little as $9 for a 55-minute class to as high as $100 for five classes in a week (at $20 per class). In all, for 11 hours’ worth of classes for the week, I spent about $200. I hope one day in the future they offer prices in Canadian dollars.

Is Outschool worth it?

I was prepared to not be wowed, but I mostly was. During the signing up process, I loved that each class description included every detail you could possibly want to know, from what will be covered to a full bio on the teacher, what materials are required (e.g. a certain device, app, or software program), and the full time commitment. The classes themselves matched the descriptions to a tee.

When it came to customer service issues, any problem we encountered was quickly rectified, like a partial refund when my son couldn’t make one class (he could still watch the recorded session after). Our experience was largely positive.

Keep in mind, however, that costs can add up quickly, especially when considering the exchange rate if you use a Canadian credit card. Based on the cost-to-time ratio, Outschool also isn’t the virtual summer classroom of your dreams, serving as an all-day camp replacement. But there is value in the intimate and focused nature of small group classes. It’s more like tutoring or extracurriculars than it is a replacement for school or all-day camp.

Will there be any point to Outschool after the pandemic?

A relatively small sum of $14 for an hour of virtual socializing with kids who share similar interests is a small price to pay when the kids have no other option. But once they do, that $14 might be better spent hanging out with friends in real life.

Still, even when we return to some level of normalcy, I plan to sign my son up for a few summer Outschool classes, whether it’s an hour every week to learn something new or one-off classes to explore interests and meet new friends. He’s just as excited as I am to look through the options and find classes that interest him.

That said, I’ll be setting a strict budget. Without one, Outschool can quickly make too big a dent on the credit card bill. But with a running tally and selecting just one or two subjects my kid is really passionate about, I think it’ll be totally worth it.

School-age

Developmental leaps happen well beyond the baby years—here’s what to expect

Some of the toughest phases kids go through result in developmental breakthroughs and new emotional regulation skills.

With five minutes to go before Liz Brenner’s* six-year-old son, Nate,* had to leave for school, he seemed on the verge of a full-blown tantrum. “He was frustrated about the way his sock seam felt inside his boot—it’s always something sensory, which he has traditionally struggled with,” recalls Brenner. Nate got panicky and started stomping around, even stepping on his mom’s bare foot. After Brenner said “Ow!” to the stomped-on foot, a sudden shift happened: Nate looked up at her and pulled himself together.

“I watched him calm down, recover, shake the tantrum out, and then he came over, said ‘Sorry,’ and gave me a hug—all unprompted. And I remember it distinctly because it felt like a turning point. He definitely wouldn’t have been able to calm down on his own six months ago.”

What Brenner witnessed was a combination of self-regulation and the ability to see something from another person’s perspective. Psychologists call this “theory of mind,” and Nate was just at the age when these two things start to spark in kids’ brains.

Brain development in kids under six is an intense process. “From age zero to two, the brain is making a million new neural connections a second,” says Vanessa Lapointe, a Vancouver-based psychologist and author of Parenting Right from the Start. Things like language, gross and fine motor skills, cognition and emotional intelligence are all developing alongside each other and at differing rates. And it goes beyond the leaps in the popular Wonder Weeks app and book you may have consulted when your kid was a baby. The brain continues to overpopulate itself with neurons and neural connections throughout childhood, through the teen years and into adulthood, but it’s “most prolific” for the first six to eight years of life, says Lapointe.

Parents will often report that when their kid is having a burst or progressing in one area, like language, for example, they will become suddenly clumsy, have a really short fuse or experience disrupted sleep. “That’s because of a hyper overdevelopment of neural connections. It causes a muddiness between the neural connections, and that’s where you get that spillover effect,” says Lapointe.

The development of a newborn’s brain into an adult brain—and transforming from an impulsive little kid into a reasonable, mostly rational human—is by no means a smooth process and there will be plenty of meltdowns along the way. But you can take heart in knowing that these growth spurts of the brain will make them more regulated, happier, easier-to-deal-with humans. You just need to get through them first. Here are three major shifts to watch for as your kid grows. 

Managing emotions (age 3 to 7)

A lot of what we eventually expect from kids—the ability to share, do chores, handle disappointment and make compromises—comes from the prefrontal cortex, the last area of the brain to develop. “The brain grows from bottom up,” says Lapointe. The first area of development is the emotional foundation of the brain, called the limbic system, which starts developing at birth. When kids hit the three-to-five-year age range, other layers of the brain start to develop, progressing to the prefrontal cortex, which houses the executive functioning system. Around this age, parents may notice small signs of reasoning and regulation. “We’re starting to see a little bit of sparkiness, but still a complete inability to manage things independently. They are still going to struggle with everyday things, on the regular,” says Lapointe.

Then, somewhere in the five-to-seven-year age range, connections really start to form in the prefrontal cortex region and kids are able to problem-solve and self-regulate. “Instead of having a meltdown, hitting my brother in the face or stealing the toy from my friend, we’re going to think through this and use some logic and some delayed gratification,” Lapointe explains.

It’s not like a light that switches on and stays on, though. Sometimes kids will be able to handle some distress one day, whereas the same situation will send them over the edge the next.

Psychologist Kofi Belfon, associate director of clinical services at the Child Development Institute in Toronto, points out that this is not dissimilar from an adult who has a bad day. “For example, if I had a wonderful day at work and I’m walking in the house and I trip through all the kids’ bags and shoes and all kinds of stuff, I’m much better able to manage that in a regulated way than if I had a crappy day at work. My ability to manage my emotions in that moment was stretched.” The same goes for our kids, he says, adding that whenever we have a behavioural expectation on our kid, we should make sure it’s appropriate for the age they’re at and the situation at hand.

Sharing and empathizing (age 3 to 5)

Have you ever arrived at daycare pickup only to see your kid turn into an unrecognizable wrangy terror? Inevitably, as you stare in bewilderment, the teacher will assure you they were not like this all day long.

What’s going on here, explains Lapointe, is the child’s inability to hold two thoughts in their mind at once. On the one hand, you are their caregiver. On the other hand, so is the daycare teacher. “When they’ve been with the daycare person all day, they know, ‘That’s my person.’ Then their parent walks in the door and now they have to traverse this grey zone.” They’re pulled in two directions and unable to control their emotions, explains Lapointe. “The more intense your child is, the bigger their ‘blah’ at daycare pickup.”

This concept can also impact a kid’s ability to share. “If a child is only able to hold one significant idea in mind at a time, 99.9 percent of the time, that idea is going to be one that’s egocentric. The idea that they are going to hold in mind is the idea that serves them,” says Lapointe. Being self-centred as a toddler is essentially a survival method. It’s not until age five, six or even seven that kids are able to hold on to two ideas at once: for example, the idea that they really want to play with a toy, because it’s their favourite, and the second idea, that if they don’t give their friend a turn, the friend will be sad. “When you can have both those ideas in your mind’s eye at the same time, then you can make a ‘good choice,’” says Lapointe.

Things like sharing also involve the ability to see someone else’s point of view. This is the “theory of mind” concept again. It’s also what allowed Brenner’s son to understand that stepping on her foot hurt her—even if stomping around was making him feel better and providing an emotional release.

“You can weigh out what’s going on and take the perspective of the other person,” explains Lapointe. “You can say, ‘You’re going to have a turn for five minutes, then I’m going to have five minutes.’” But it’s not until age five to seven that kids can really do this. And keep in mind that kids who are tired, hungry or coping with a lot of stressors or things on their mind are not going to be able to see both points of view. “They’ll revert to one or the other, and it will almost always be the egocentric option,” says Lapointe.

Growing up too fast (age 7 to 9)

When kids hit the school-aged years, their worlds suddenly open up beyond the cozy comforts of their homes and primary caregivers. “They become a little too smart, a little too quickly,” says Lapointe.

Children this age are old enough to cognitively understand that there are other forces at work in the world that could disrupt their sense of peace or stability—like their parents could separate or a family member could get in a car accident—but they are not old enough to see the bigger picture and understand that there are systems and other things in place that will provide control, says Lapointe. “It’s a bit of shaky ground to be on developmentally, because you are aware of things cognitively, but emotionally you haven’t developed the complexity of understanding.”

She adds this is why eight- and nine-year-olds seem so grown up some days but other days melt into a puddle over the slightest thing. “It’s like they were looking forward to those preteen years, and then all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Nope, I’m not doing it.’ And they throw the brakes on and slip. They become three and four years old, right before your eyes.”

During the pandemic especially, we’ve seen young kids adapting to new rules, social distancing recommendations, and daily routines, such as switching back and forth between in-person and virtual school—all very grown-up and disruptive things. So Lapointe recommends giving your kid the benefit of the doubt if they are suddenly or uncharacteristically acting like their younger selves: “You should still have rules and boundaries, but when you’re being firm and saying ‘Here’s the expectation,’ the key is to also have some heart and compassion. Match the level of firmness with a giant dose of kindness, so they feel understood rather than shamed.”

Belfon, the psychologist, adds that fear and anxiety are completely natural emotions we all face, and there’s no need to worry if your kid is expressing them. He says the takeaway should be, “As a kid, I might feel sad, but I can manage the sadness because everybody feels sad sometimes.” (If anxiety is interfering with their lives, then you should speak to their doctor.)

Brenner reports that in some moments, Nate’s self-regulation and self-sufficiency skills really shine through, but he’s still struggling at other times. Most days last winter he managed a full day of virtual school on Zoom, mastering grown-up tasks like the mute button and following along with online lessons and journal prompts. But on several occasions he “completely lost it” and dissolved into tears of frustration and lashed out, even during a simple art class YouTube draw-along activity.

“It can really be a roller coaster of emotions, which makes it hard for us, as parents, to constantly adapt and respond without always trying to ‘fix’ every problem or hiccup. But I am beginning to see these glimpses of maturity,” says Brenner.

Lapointe says these kinds of ups and downs, as kids work through all these intense feelings, are completely normal. It’s not always a straight, upward trend: Expect some zig-zags, especially during times of stress. “As parents, we want to make sure we give our kids the benefit of the doubt—they are trying their best.” 

*Names have been changed.

School-age

What to do when your kid's best friend is a bad influence

Is it OK to interfere in your kid’s problematic friendships? Here’s how to navigate this tricky situation.

When Alison Simpson’s* son, Marshall, began junior kindergarten, she was proud of his efforts to make friends with Joe, a quiet and withdrawn kid. Marshall helped bring him out of his shell, and the teachers and Simpson encouraged the relationship.

Soon after, Marshall began talking about how Joe told him scary things about Pennywise (the clown from the horror movie It) and Bendy and the Ink Machine (a video game for ages 12+). Marshall began saying violent things at home as “jokes.” At school, Joe began acting out in class, unable to control his anger, sometimes being aggressive to teachers and peers. Simpson and her husband became concerned—had they encouraged their son to befriend a kid who was clearly troubled? How could they backtrack and ask Marshall to stay away from his “best friend”?

When your kid makes a friend who you believe is a bad influence, your protective instincts can make it hard to see a clear path forward. Many parents discover that the cocoon of control you have over certain aspects of your kid’s life starts to crumble once they begin school and have more freedom. The first thing to remember is that you cannot choose whom your kid connects with; you can only encourage them to make good decisions and give them tools to deal with tough situations.

Support their choices

The allure of the alpha kid is strong for any child, especially those who may be more sensitive. Just like adults, kids with strong personalities can be charming. “Kids who are a little softer often have urges to be loud or disruptive, so when they see other kids doing that, it’s fascinating and they’re drawn to them,” says Mercedes Samudio, a licensed clinical social worker and author of Shame-Proof Parenting. “Kids are naturally empathetic; they intuitively want to connect to other kids. They don’t see a ‘troublemaker’ like adults do; they just see another kid having fun. They may admire certain traits they believe they don’t possess.”

It is important to support your kid’s choices as long as they’re not being harmed. “Ask them, Why do you like this child? Do you think the child is kind or a good sharer? Basically ask them about traits that you would hope your child would start to look for in a friend,” says Samudio. Leading the conversation this way allows your kid the space to express themselves and teaches them that these are qualities that make for a great friend. When you offer your support, rather than your displeasure, your child will learn that their choices have weight, that you respect their ability to be autonomous.

Validate their feelings

Once you understand the allure, ask your child how their friend makes them feel. “Children may have conflicting feelings about friendships in their life,” says Helena Goodwill, a Toronto-based child psychologist. “As a parent, it is important to acknowledge the mixed feelings. Understanding these contrasting feelings will help your kid understand their own personal boundaries.”

If they feel bad when their friend is rude to the teacher, for example, that will help them understand that rudeness is something they aren’t OK with. “Help them come up with a solution if their friend oversteps—for example, I can stand up for someone else, say something to my friend about it, remove myself from the situation or give myself a break,” she continues. “These are the strategies that I would encourage first.”

Reinforce family boundaries

Boundaries will also help when your child wants to know why they cannot do something or behave like their friend. Chat about your family’s boundaries without placing blame on other parents or guardians. “Explore the idea that other families make choices for their family, and that’s their business,” recommends Samudio. “Our family believes XYZ, or our family doesn’t do ABC, and it’s OK to be different, even if we don’t always understand it.”

For Simpson, keeping close contact with the teachers was helpful. While Marshall and Joe remain friends, Marshall naturally connected with a new BFF with whom he shared more interests. For grade one, Simpson asked that the boys be placed in separate classes, a request many principals will try to accommodate.

When the pandemic hit last March, the physical separation also helped put Joe’s behaviour into perspective for Marshall. “Marshall actually told me unprompted that although he hoped Joe would be in his grade two class, he also knew that it might be better to have space,” says Simpson. “He said, ‘I think I’m growing up!’ Honestly, it made me tear up with pride.”

*Names have been changed

School-age

Can you sleep-train a six-year-old?

Don’t beat yourself up wondering why you didn’t “Ferberize” back when your kid was still a baby—experts say it’s not too late to sleep train older kids. Try these five strategies.

You can put a 12-month-old to bed in their crib in a safely baby-proofed room and simply close the door, sure. But you can’t do that with your, um, 72-month-old.

Bedtime definitely gets trickier as babies turn into toddlers and preschoolers who are more mobile, more vocal and way more opinionated. We’re the parents still indulging endless bedtime requests (water, snacks, books, repeat), waking at 3 a.m. when kiddo climbs into the bed or enduring 90-minute bedtime routines. (My daughter’s involves drawing graphic novels, retelling stories of my childhood, guided meditation and reading for 45 minutes.)

But don’t beat yourself up wondering why you didn’t “Ferberize” back when your kid was still a baby. Experts say it’s not too late—try these five strategies.

Monitor your own bedtime

If you’ve ever stumbled out of bed to tuck your kiddo back in only to wake up on the living room couch to an episode of Paw Patrol, you know that sleep deprivation makes good parenting decisions difficult.

Chronic sleep deprivation makes us mentally foggy, more emotional and easily angered—just like our kids!—which only compounds our problems, says child psychologist Penny Corkum, a sleep researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Parents need healthy sleep schedules, too, which typically means going to bed earlier.

“I think a lot of times parents stay up extra late because they want some solo downtime when their child is sleeping,” she says. It’s been hard during COVID, but try to look for ways you can sneak in some of that precious alone time or self-care during the day, so you don’t crave it at night. Get your spouse to make and serve the kids dinner while you take a walk, or consider sneaking off for a bath while the kids are doing homework (if your kids are older). You’ll parent better with more rest, even if an earlier bedtime for yourself feels deeply uncool.

You could also look into respite care, which is for parents with kids who have high needs because of a disability or serious health condition. A caregiver, sometimes funded by the government, spends a few hours or stays overnight so exhausted parents can have a breather.

Bedtime fading

It’s counterintuitive, but research shows that allowing a few later nights, initially, can help kids adjust to earlier bedtimes. Paediatrician Craig Canapari, author of It’s Never Too Late to Sleep Train, suggests “bedtime fading.” Start by delaying bedtime by 30 to 60 minutes so your kiddo is sleepier than usual and falls asleep easily (and solo), without fighting or pleading. Do this for a few nights, until they’ve mastered falling asleep faster on their own. Then gradually reel bedtime back by 15 minutes every few days until you reach your target (this should be between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. for most children).

“Excuse me” drills

You can combine bedtime fading with “excuse me” drills, in which you give a series of excuses to briefly leave the room and then return to check on the child (and praise them for staying in bed). If your child is anxious about falling asleep alone, this helps desensitize them to your absence. The idea is that you begin with very frequent checks—perhaps every few minutes on the first night—but extend the time a bit each night until the child is calm enough to fall asleep independently. Boring excuses, like going downstairs to take out the trash or load the dishwasher, work best.

Camping out

If your little monkey likes to cling to you while they doze off, many experts will tell you you’re going to need to get them to fall asleep solo at the beginning of the night. (If you’re snuggling with them until they fall fully asleep and then they wake up in the night, they’ll come to your bedside looking for you again.) Instead, try a gradual strategy for independent bedtimes, often called “camping out.” The idea here is that every one to three days, you change your position in the child’s room until you’re finally outside, in the hallway, giving kiddo ample opportunity to practise self-soothing. Begin in bed on the first night, rubbing their back, and then the next night, try sitting at the bedside instead. Next, try waiting elsewhere in the room or by the
door while they fall asleep. Finally, move all the way to the hallway. At each stage, try to comfort your child with only brief, almost robotic interactions, and avoid getting into negotiations. (Canapari suggests a simple script you can repeat each time, such as, “I love you. It’s time to go to sleep. Good night.”)

Hall passes

Canapari also recommends a common strategy known as the “bedtime pass.” Each night, your child gets an actual card or pass (like a school hall pass) granting permission to leave their room briefly, just once (for example, for water, the bathroom or a hug). Research shows that most kids will stay in bed and not even use the card, secure in the knowledge that they could if they wanted to.

If your child still leaves their room, you may need a consistent strategy to stop the behaviour. Canapari suggests parents repeatedly walk their child back to bed with a short script, similar to what they might say during camping out, and without making eye contact. Then, close the door for a minute. Open it again, and if they still aren’t in bed, close the door for two minutes, even if they’re yelling or screaming. (You can close the door, but never lock a child’s door, as it’s a fire safety risk. A doorway baby gate is an alternative for smaller kids.) Continue increasing the time until the child gets back into bed.

This is easier said than done, as plenty of kids will protest, potentially waking other kids. Whatever you try, be consistent. Even if you almost always walk your kiddo back to bed, the one time you cave and let them watch TV on your phone or climb into bed with you is enough to reinforce the bad behaviour.

School-age

How will Ontario schools keep kids safe during the third wave?

With schools in the province reopened, many conflicted parents are wondering what improvements—if any—have been made.

It was sometime in August 2020, before the last reopening of schools in Ontario, that Sarah Liss became fixated with ventilation. Her older child goes to school in the Toronto District School Board, in the kind of building where students complain about the sweltering heat on warmer days. Only now she was worried about COVID.

With school boards and the province focusing on masks, cohorting and cleaning, Liss used her spare time researching another vital factor identified by health and science experts for slowing transmission: ventilation. Specifically, she began looking for solutions to get air purifiers into classrooms not only across the city, but the entire province.

She stumbled upon Danby, an appliance company based in Guelph, Ont. that makes portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) purifiers. The CEO’s name rang a bell; Liss remembered an article in Toronto Life a few years ago about how the mild-mannered philanthropist quietly sponsored 200 Syrian refugees. Jim Estill sounded like someone who might have a creative solution. “He’s also an eccentric enough guy that he has a WordPress blog which includes his personal email address,” Liss adds.

She wrote him out of the blue explaining that schools needed help. He replied, and they began to brainstorm. Estill didn’t have enough units for every classroom in the province—about 65,000 according to a “guesstimate” Liss received from the advocacy group People for Education (she never got concrete numbers via more official avenues). But he said he could donate several hundred units. Another possibility, which Estill mentioned in passing, was that Danby might be able to produce enough units for every classroom by 2021, which he could sell at a reduced cost.

Liss took that information to her friend Roxanne Wright, who chairs the school’s parent council, and they reached out to the TDSB for next steps. It had the early makings of a success story, Liss says, “about a grassroots parent effort that wasn’t for a home school—and the power of sending a random email. But it was such a bummer. The TDSB bungled every piece of it.”

Liss and Wright’s experience raises questions about missed opportunities to make classrooms safer—questions that have become more urgent as the last cohorts of kids returned to in-person school this week, and warnings grow from health authorities of a disastrous third wave.

Experts appear to agree unanimously on the negative impact that missing out on school can have on a child’s physical and mental health. The question is whether the right mitigation measures are in place to ensure that kids can rejoin school safely—and remain there as the province continues to relax restrictions. Ontario has pledged enhanced safety measures: mandating masks for kids as young Grade 1—indoors and outdoors—and targeted asymptomatic testing. But will these measures be enough given the potential spread of new coronavirus variants spreading across parts of the country?

Not according to some experts. On Friday, Bradley Wouters, executive vice-president of science and research at the University Health Network and a senior scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, publicly declared via Twitter that he had pulled his kids from in-person learning. “Convinced it’s not safe to go back,” he wrote. Amy Greer, an epidemiologist at the University of Guelph, told CBC’s Front Burner podcast that her two kids, ages five and nine, will do virtual school, as they have since September: “It is the choice we made for our own situation.” And David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health tweeted Feb. 11: “If we’re going back to in-school learning in Ontario hotspots, time for the Ministry of Ed to get serious about ventilation in schools. We need CO2 monitors and HEPA filters in our classrooms. Students, teachers and communities deserve to be safe.”

It might have gone differently. Liss found herself reflecting on her own frustrating experience from last summer as she prepared to send her kids back to school. Liss is not an expert on air purifiers. She simply wanted to start a conversation between the TDSB and the CEO she’d found who was willing to help. But it took weeks for anyone at the under-resourced school board to return her emails. When she and Wright finally got a video meeting with the TDSB for Estill and themselves, the school board representatives didn’t show up. When they eventually connected the school board with Estill, TDSB’s business development department sent him a list of questions, such as whether an air purifier kills viruses like COVID-19—something that could have been answered with a simple Google search. (They do not; nor was anyone claiming they could. But there is some evidence they can help limit its spread.)

Dejected, Liss and Wright stepped back from the project she helped launch. They later heard about the result via a TDSB email blast in mid-October: Estill would provide the school board with a donation of 500 air purifiers. “It’s better than nothing,” Liss says. But it’s also disappointing, “when you know what could have been possible—if there had been any will at the board.”

The complications seemed inevitable. A donation was a simple matter; a TDSB purchase has to follow time-consuming bureaucratic procedures. Estill, for his part, didn’t push the idea of producing more units for schools because he didn’t want to “cloud the donation,” he says in an interview. His company’s motto is: “do the right thing”; he didn’t want any perception of doing otherwise. “If I donate air purifiers, it’s clear I’m donating them,” Estill adds. “Air purifiers were in shortage. We basically donated all we had in inventory.”

In the end, the units went to 37 schools that don’t have mechanical ventilation systems or HVAC—even though this is a reality for half of the TDSB’s nearly 600 schools.

Liss is acutely aware that had the TDSB been able to work out an arrangement with Estill last summer, there’s a chance every classroom in the city could have an air purifier by now. As it is, schools go back to in-class learning to a starkly different reality compared with September, with daily average case rates five times higher and more contagious variants of concern circulating in Ontario. She’s left to wonder just what has changed inside the classroom, and she’s not the only parent in that position.

In the Greater Toronto Area, “there’s really been no changes from when we were last open,” says Ryan Harper, acting president of the Peel branch for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. “We keep hearing: ‘Schools are safe. Schools are safe.’ I’m looking at the so-called enhanced measures and I don’t see any changes.”

The Peel School Board has expanded its masking policy in accordance with provincial guidelines and has a new self-screening framework; students must stay home if they have even one symptom of COVID-19. (This, of course, does not address asymptomatic cases, which also drive COVID’s spread.) With respect to HVAC systems, the school board says every classroom in their schools “have been reviewed and upgraded in some capacity.” Schools with mechanical systems, for example, now have upgraded air filters to above industry standards that will be changed more often and the ventilation system will have longer hours of operation. The board has also installed 969 portable air filtration units.

That works out, on average, less than four portable air filtration units per school. And classrooms, depending on their square footage, could need multiple units to cover the entire room.

Harper laments the lack of standards system-wide. “There should be a standard for what’s appropriate for ventilation in schools—and there’s not,” he says. “We just hear there’s improved ventilation, but what does that mean? Is it one device for one classroom somewhere so you can now say there’s improved ventilation?”

Even the most engaged parents find it difficult to get answers on what improvements have been made. Sarah Elton, a mother of two, joined the parent council for her kids’ school in September in hopes of helping with COVID-related concerns. Elton is an assistant professor at Ryerson University and the Dalla Lana school of public health and a health researcher. She recently attended a webinar with a participant from ASHRAE, an organization of engineers at the forefront of ventilation standards, where she learned a lot about the group’s recommendations to potentially reduce the spread of COVID aerosols in non-medical buildings, such as schools: ensure the relative humidity of the building is above 40 per cent, utilize portable air purifiers, add Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) devices where possible and keep the HVAC system running 24/7. (TDSB adjusted its mechanical systems to start running two hours before school starts, and run for two hours after school ends. Peel states it “increased hours of operation for the ventilation system.” )

Elton emailed the Superintendent of Education asking if any of these measures were in place at her kids’ school. She got no reply for a month. When she followed up, he thanked her for her work on parent council, adding that the school board planned to replace the windows at her kids’ school (which don’t open in most of the building) sometime in the spring or summer. He also pointed her to a TDSB website link with frequently asked questions on HEPA filters. “I got a pat-on-the-back email—it’s great that parents care so much—and I found that so patronizing and frustrating,” Elton says. “I received no indication they are doing anything on these widely circulated, easily available standards.”

The “they” in question includes the province. There is already evidence that Ontario’s ministry of education did not do everything it could to make classrooms safe; a Toronto Star report revealed that the province walked back plans for “substantial surveillance testing,” among other things. But school boards’ hands aren’t entirely tied to decisions made by the province on safety measures. The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), in the same city, tested using plexiglass at desks for students in COVID hot spots. They also had a pilot project in the fall with outdoor tents at 10 schools, with classes rotating in and out throughout the day.

“A 100-year pandemic? This is the time to boldly go forward and try and see what works” based on the science,” says TCDSB trustee Norm Di Pasquale. The verdict on the Catholic school board’s interventions: the plexiglass desk shields proved annoying during the instructional day as they were hard to see through and sometimes fell off the desks. (They are also likely ineffective for curbing aerosol particles, a growing number of experts believe, since these behave more like cigarette smoke than like droplets.) But they were somewhat useful to offer a barrier of protection at lunch hour when students eat with their masks off. Meanwhile, the outdoor tents worked well, though they won’t be of much help in Canadian winters.

As for ventilation, “we’re studying the CO2 particles and air flow in our schools—and we’ll get that report back in a week to help us determine how to invest the ventilation funding from the government,” Di Pasquale says. Monitoring carbon dioxide levels doesn’t tell if COVID-19 aerosols are floating in the air, but CO2 levels can act as a proxy of sorts to measure how much exhaled air is in the room. This could prove especially valuable as evidence mounts that COVID-19 is airborne and can travel more than six feet.

Dividing a school into separate groups with only one cohort of students from each class on campus at a given time—be it alternating days or weeks—could also significantly reduce the both the likelihood of and size of a COVID outbreak, according to a recent study from Colour Health, a California-based health technology company. In primary schools, for example, “the probability of an outbreak infecting more than five per cent of the students plummets from nearly fifty percent with no cohorting to around three percent with weekly cohorting.” Couple this with regular randomized testing of students and teachers and the likelihood of an outbreak spreading widely is even lower.

The study also found that vaccinating teachers and staff could have a disproportionate protective effect with respect to outbreak in primary and secondary schools, though that remains a remote prospect in Ontario, which is still vaccinating high-risk residents of long-term care homes.

The country’s largest school board has not mandated such measures. The TDSB did say it has purchased an additional 4,000 air purifiers/HEPA filters for use in classrooms that don’t use mechanical ventilation, or have limited ability to provide fresh air. None of these units, incidentally, was purchased from Danby. Estill says he was open to responding to a tender if the board was purchasing more units, but he was unaware the board had done so until he was told by Maclean’s. A TDSB spokesperson told Maclean’s that the units they purchased service a larger area than those donated to the school board by Danby.

In any case, kids are now filing into classrooms across the city and the province. The effects of the latest shift remain to be seen. An Ontario simulation-study last fall by University of Toronto researchers found that most COVID cases in schools, after the first two months of classes, were the result of community transmission rather than transmission within the classroom. However, Montreal’s experience during the second wave was different.

By early November there were more outbreaks in schools than workplaces and the group with the highest COVID cases were children aged 10 to 19. Several experts, including the head of the Association des médecins microbiologistes-infectiologues du Québec, blamed transmission in schools rather than the community for the city’s climbing numbers. A study last month conducted by researchers at the Universite de Montreal, George Washington University and CovidEcolesQuebec.org likewise concluded that schools are now driving COVID spread in the community, rather than the other way around. “Right now limiting in-person schooling as much as possible would actually be the right solution,” Simona Bignmami, one of the study’s authors, told Global News, although if schools stay open, the authors strongly recommend measures such as good ventilation and asymptomatic testing.

Children are less likely to show serious symptoms of COVID, thankfully, but that can complicate data collection if they aren’t being tested while asymptomatic. Nor are the effects of the new variants entirely known; early studies suggest that while the B117 variant is still less contagious among children, compared to adults, it could still be around 50 per cent more transmissible among both children and adults.

Children weren’t considered at risk from COVID during the first and second waves, but health experts in Israel, where the U.K. variant has been circulating since December, reportedly revised that assessment after an increase in cases and hospitalizations among children and teens, according to the Jerusalem Post. Some 50,000 young people tested positive in January alone, and the country has seen a troubling new phenomenon: kids with “long COVID,” or post-infection symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches and heart palpitations. Many had only mild cases of COVID. While Israel has led the world for vaccination rates among adults, the country also recently opened its first intensive care unit specifically for children with COVID.

With daily case counts and death rates falling across most of Canada, Brooks Fallis, a critical care doctor with the William Osler Health system in the Greater Toronto Area wrote in the Globe and Mail that “reopening of schools and economies without meaningful improvements in surveillance or containment” could lead the country into a third wave.

The subject of school transmission came up last week in Newfoundland and Labrador, where authorities cancelled in-person voting a day before what would have been Election Day. The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health attributed a huge spike in COVID to the more contagious B117 variant of the coronavirus. “We certainly had significant spread this weekend—and it spread quite easily and quite rapidly through the high school,” Dr. Janice Fitzgerald explained at a Friday news conference. “This certainly confirms what a lot of us were perhaps suspecting, but not really wanting to admit.”

The same variant, first detected in the U.K., has spread to students across at least seven Alberta classrooms, with the first case of in-school transmission reported days ago. Four Montreal schools have temporarily closed their doors amid outbreaks, including one with the variant. And one of the variants of concern has also shown up in a school in Kitchener, Ont., which opened to in-person learning on Feb. 8.

All of this has made parents like Elton feel deeply conflicted about the decision to send their kids back to school. Elton points out her children’s schools are no safer than before, but she also had to take into consideration their education and mental health. “It blows my mind that we’re in a position where we’re heading back to school with new variants that are highly infectious and appear to be circulating in our community, and we don’t even know what’s being done through basic measures—like using the school’s humidifiers.”

School-age

My six-year-old's sleep is totally effed and I blame Zoom

If sleep has been a struggle for your family during virtual school and remote learning, you’re not alone. Here's help.

By his third straight day of remote learning from home, my six-year-old son could no longer fall asleep at night. He’s always been what’s called a “low sleep-needs” kid who pushed bedtime closer to 9 p.m., but this was different: He wanted to fall asleep, but couldn’t. He wasn’t stalling or pulling the usual shenanigans. He was tossing and turning endlessly, and then in tears because he couldn’t drift off.

“If I can’t get my body to fall asleep soon, I won’t be able to have any fun tomorrow,” he sobbed. Snuggling with him didn’t help; he didn’t want to listen to a sleep meditation app or bedtime story; and all my calm and rational reassurances that everything would be OK didn’t seem to register. He was an emotional, overtired mess.

I posted about our rough nights on social media and got a resounding, “Yup, us too” from other parents of little kids, all suddenly stuck in front of screens for six hours a day or more. Sleep consultants chimed in and confirmed that pandemic-related sleep disturbances are definitely on the rise in kids. The main culprits are all that screen time from Zoom school, the general lack of activity and increased anxiety levels—for all of us. In kids, this may look like moodiness or meltdowns. 

Not only is my son getting less physical activity and exercise during lockdown, but he’s also lacking in social interactions and those all-important changes in environment—simply being in a classroom, or on the schoolyard at recess, surrounded by peers and other forms of stimulation. Even though my son’s teacher has been really awesome about incorporating movement breaks and fun dance videos multiple times a day, it’s still too much total screen time logged for a six-year-old. 

His “recess” is only one hour, and he also needs to eat lunch during that time. (Plus, that’s assuming a parent can step away from their work responsibilities to convince him to get his outdoor gear on and get to a park, and back, before the hour is up. Like a lot of little kids, he struggles with transitions and switching activities.)

Then there’s the shorter winter days, the lack of sunshine and a stay-at-home order that limits trips outside the house (officially, we are only to leave for essentials, exercise and medical appointments). His school day ends at 3:45 p.m., then it gets dark shortly after we finish work at 5 p.m. It’s a recipe for inactivity and sleeplessness. 

“Any change in pace or routines can create stress, making it hard to sleep and process information from the day,” explains Amanda Jewson, a sleep consultant, former teacher and mom of two school-age kids. She points out that with e-learning from home, kids aren’t problem solving or experiencing friction like they would in a normal school day. “Plus, they’re on screens all day, with little exercise and few social interactions.”

If screen time is unavoidable right now, what can we do to help our kids build up a stronger sleep drive? Some of the advice is obvious; some suggestions seem impossible for working parents to pull off. But here are the most common tips and coping strategies I’ve gathered.

More outside time

Obviously, outdoor activity is a biggie. But my kid’s virtual learning schedule is tight—it’s timed down to the minute! I can only imagine how hard it would be if I had multiple school-age kids with schedules that don’t sync up. (Luckily, our three-year-old’s daycare is still open, for which I am eternally grateful.)

My husband and I try to take turns rushing our kid to the park for some masked and distanced playground time during his lunch hour, but that’s really only about 30 minutes of outdoor activity, at best. Still, we’re super lucky to have two parents working from home, and bosses who are sympathetic to the current “situation.” Many parents cannot drop everything to run their kid during recess. 

I know some families who go for morning walks outside, before the first bell—definitely worth trying, if you can swing it. And there are ways to get more bang for our buck when we do make it outside. Instead of letting our kid just chat with his buddies about Beyblades for 30 minutes, we try to change up our physical activity options: bringing a stomp rocket to the park; installing rock climbing holds from Canadian Tire on our backyard fence; making him run laps around a school track; taking him to a playground with one of those spider-web climbing structures in an attempt to tire him out faster. We also try to log more outside time on weekends. Long hikes in the woods seem to be good for everyone’s mental health—parents included.

Incorporate more physical activity indoors (even while kids are in class)

More physical activity should help tire your kids out in general, even if it has to be indoors. Some parents have bought indoor mini-trampolines or doorway gyms. I’m sure that Wii sales have gone up this winter, and a neighbour of mine even lets her nine-year-old son ride her Peloton. Another friend has built her own budget-friendly indoor kid bike: she re-installed the training wheels and propped them up inside her husband’s old Crocs, to turn it into a stationary bike her kid can pedal while reading or listening to his classes.

I also let my kid play with a small fidget toy to help keep him at his desk. I’m not sure the teacher loves this, but I figure at least his butt is in the chair, and I think he’s mostly listening? Legos, Bakugans and these teeny building toys from Plus-Plus are other go-to fidget toys for us, because they don’t take up too much table space.

I’m also curious about wobble boards and swivel seats designed for squirmy kids who focus better when they’re moving. Scholastic sells both “wiggle seats” and “movement stools” that could help kids with “excess energy.” (Let me know if you’ve tried ‘em!)

Limit non-school screen time

When my kid finishes school at 3:45, he usually asks for the family iPad. He’s also used to getting to watch a few episodes of TV while we make dinner. But I know we have to be more mindful of the cumulative screen-time totals. If he’s on a screen for school alllllll day, I really don’t want to allow him lots of tablet time after that (even if I’m desperate to get another hour of work in). So I’m resolving to say no more often. I try to redirect to Lego, drawing or Magna-Tiles instead, because they’re quiet activities that don’t require much supervision. Anything that isn’t screen-based will help.

Don’t rush to give your kid melatonin

Some parents were quick to recommend dosing my kid with melatonin—it seems to be the go-to advice in Facebook parenting groups, especially. But everything I’ve read about melatonin does not recommend it as a cure-all for kids. It’s a hormone that triggers sleepiness, sure. But there aren’t enough large-scale studies on what that hormone does to growing kids. Melatonin from the health food store also isn’t regulated the same way a medication is. At the very least, you should talk to your kid’s doctor about your sleep woes before trying it.

There are also ways to encourage natural release of melatonin in your kid, to help with what’s called “sleep initiation,” says Alanna McGinn, a sleep consultant, mom of three (including twins) and founder of Good Night Sleep Site. Make sure your kid’s bedroom is a dark sleep environment and that you limit screens for at least one hour before bed—blue light from devices can inhibit natural melatonin production.

Being vigilant about a set bedtime can also help the body regulate melatonin release. More on that below.

Stick with a set bedtime

Because COVID-19 has upended our kids’ normal lives, it’s important to keep the evenings and bedtime routines as predictable as possible—even for older kids. All this time at home with multiple kids in virtual school can be loud and chaotic, with lots of big, roller coaster emotions. But kids thrive with boundaries, as hard as it is to enforce them right now. “Keep bedtime and nights as consistent as you can,” says McGinn. “They may fight it, but they will thrive with the consistency.”

Do dinner and a calming bath at the same time every night, followed by a predictable, comforting winding-down routine. (It doesn’t have to be elaborate. We read two picture books or two chapters, then brush teeth, then lights out.) 

For children struggling with those big feelings or anxiety, Jewson recommends incorporating art, journaling or meditation before bed.

Talk with the teacher

“Your kid is definitely not the only child his age feeling like this, and possibly missing lessons because of it,” McGinn reassures me. “I feel for all of the parents with kids in grades two and under. It’s so hard at this age to keep their attention—let alone being in front of a screen all day,” she adds. “If it’s not clicking for your kid, or if you need more breaks, don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

Jewson agrees—she only has her kids work until 1:30 p.m. “If my kids have more screen time than that, they become literal monsters,” she says. “Of course that’s not every kid and not a parenting judgment—but just know that what you’re seeing makes complete sense.”

By all accounts, there’s a big range in terms of teacher flexibility—some school schedules are treated as “suggestions” and students are free to duck in and out when they can make it, then close the laptop when kids (or parents) are maxed out. But I’ve also heard from other parents that their kids are marked absent for being even five minutes late to log on, or that they will get an automated call from the school if they skip out on a lesson. It seems to vary by school district, by teacher, and by grade level. 

Ultimately, I do think parents know their kids’ needs best, and if excessive screen time is making it hard for your kid to get the rest they need at night, or if they’re just too frustrated, antsy, or emotional to do virtual school for yet another long day, it’s perfectly reasonable to have a talk with the teacher about next steps. That might mean modifying the schedule or finding a compromise. It might mean taking a few mental-health days here and there, if possible. 

As a parent, I’m trying not to get too worked up about absences marked, progress made or missing assignments. Of course I want to teach my kid about grit and resilience and sticking with hard things, even when it sucks, but I’m not sure an extended lock down during a global pandemic that has gone on for almost a year is the best time to instill this life lesson. It’s not a classroom; this isn’t an ideal or normal way to learn; kids aren’t made to stare at a computer all day; and he’s only six.

Getting through the week without sacrificing our mental health—while keeping everybody well-slept, fed, housed, healthy and employed—is the most important goal for now. This is not the time to beat myself up about perfect parenting or my kid’s academic progress.

Instead, I’m working on compassion: Compassion for myself, when I lose my patience with my children. Compassion for my kid, when he isn’t his… best self, let’s just say. And compassion for the teachers, who didn’t ask for a pandemic or remote learning, either. 

I think we’re all hoping for in-person school to be safe again soon—many of us are counting down the days, while knowing that there’s a good chance the closures will be extended again. In the meantime, we are settling into a routine and finding our groove (and trying to laugh at ourselves when we utterly fail at it).

One mom friend whose kid has been in virtual school since September wisely told me that these initial sleep issues would get better with time as we all adjust, and of course, she was right. Nights are getting easier, as the weeks go by.

We don’t love this new normal—in fact, I hate that this is where we are (still!)—but we are getting better at coping with it. 

25 fun Valentine’s Day gifts for kids

Show your little ones some love with these sweet Valentine's Day gifts.

For many kids, February 14th is just another day to eat treats and make heart-shaped crafts. This year, show them some extra love with one of these fun Valentine’s Day gifts for kids.

1. Snuggle Puppy Board Book by Sandra Boynton

cover of "snuggle puppy" board book by Sandra Boynton

Photo: buybuy Baby

$9, buybuybaby.ca

2. Newborn Onesie

onesie with "Cuter than Cupid" print

Photo: Joe Fresh

$7, joefresh.com

3. Kinder Surprise Heart

heart-shaped kinder surprise treat

Photo: Well.ca

$4, well.ca

4. Craft Kits

silicone bead craft kits

Photo: Cara & Co.

$33, carasupply.com

5. Shark Print Sweater for Toddlers

sweat shirt with sharks eating hearts print

Photo: Old Navy

$23, oldnavy.ca

6. Mr. Beary + Beanie Set

young girl holding bear with matching toque

Photo: Red & Olive

$95, redandoliveco.com

7. Thames and Kosmos Creatto Starlight Kitty & Cutie Crew Light-Up Crafting Kit

light up building craft kit

Photo: Thames & Kosmos

$25, indigo.ca

8. Personalized Book

personalized kids books

Photo: Wonderbly

$43, wonderbly.com

9. Different is Good Baby Onesie

mom and baby wearing matching t-shirt and onesie

Photo: Kids Swag

$25, kidsswag.ca

10. Valentine Love Heart-Shaped Cookie Cutters

heart-shaped cookie cutters

Photo: Crate & Barrel

$8/set of three, crateandbarrel.ca

11. Kinetic Sand 1lb Metallic Rose Gold

rose gold-coloured kinetic sand

Photo: Toys”R”Us

$15, toysrus.ca

12. Family Scavenger Hunt Card Game

box for Family Scavenger Hunt game

Photo: Toys”R”Us

$9, toysrus.ca

13. Babiators Heart Sunglasses

heart-shaped kids sunglasses

Photo: Babiators

$30, westcoastkids.ca

14. Stems swaddle

baby sleeping in colourful swaddle

Photo: xylem x loom

$30 (with all proceeds going towards Meagan’s HUG), xylemloom.com

15. Skateboard indoor swing

skateboard indoor swing

Photo: Simons

$120, simons.ca

16. Dinosaur Valentine’s Day Cards (with tattoos)

dinosaur valentine's day cards and temporary tattoos laid out on decorated table

Photo: Amazon

$16, amazon.ca

17. Meri Meri Love Hearts Enamel Hair Slides

heart hair clips

Photo: Meri Meri

$18, kolkid.ca

18. Playzone-Fit Obstacle Course

obstacle course setup kit for kids

Photo: Playzone-fit

$70, mastermindtoys.com

19. The Love Book Interactive Book

kids laying on the floor with Valentine's Day themed books

Photo: Chatbooks

From $12 US, chatbooks.com

20. Personalized Wood Bowling Set

personalized wooden bowling set

Photo: Etsy

From $60, etsy.com

21. Fisher Price 5 Pack Bodysuit Giftbox

gift pack of colourful onesies for baby

Photo: Walmart

$23, walmart.ca

22. Lego Dots Secret Holder

cat-shaped container made of Lego

Photo: Lego

$25, lego.com

23. Hello Bello Valentine’s Bundle (with Love Boat box)

baby in heart print diapers and box shaped like boat with hearts

Photo: Hello Bello

From $85/7 packs of diapers and 4 packs of plant-based wipes, hellobello.ca

24. Melissa & Doug Temporary Tattoos

box of metallic temporary tattoos

Photo: Amazon

$8, amazon.ca

25. 3-Pack Scrunchies

three scrunchies with heart print

Photo: H&M

$5, hm.com

Family

Could your kid have celiac disease?

Celiac causes all sorts of seemingly random health issues, like diarrhea, irritability, anemia and dental problems. Here's what to do if you suspect it.

“Mama, my arms are too tired to colour.” When three-year-old Alyson uttered those words, her mom, Tera Gariepy, knew it was time to take her to the doctor to finally get some answers.

Gariepy had noticed some unusual but seemingly unrelated symptoms in Alyson for many months, like crankiness, constipation, insatiable hunger and relentless fatigue. “She’d go to bed at 5 p.m., fall asleep instantly, sleep for 12 or 13 hours and wake up in the morning saying she was tired,” says Gariepy, who lives in Edmonton. “I just didn’t think this was normal. I’ve taught preschool, and this was something I’d never seen in kids before.”

Her doctor tested Alyson’s blood for a variety of conditions, and within a few days, Gariepy had her answer: Alyson had celiac disease. The diagnosis was later confirmed with an internal biopsy.

Celiac disease—that’s when you can’t eat bread, right?

Sort of. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the lining of the small intestine gets damaged by consuming gluten, a protein found primarily in wheat, rye and barley (so it’s in bread, yes, but also tons of other foods, from soups to soy sauce to salad dressings). That damage is bad news, since the small intestine has a very important job: absorbing nutrients from food. Even the tiniest crumb of bread or slurp of soup can cause harm and trigger a host of unpleasant symptoms.

Alyson’s doctor hadn’t tested for celiac disease sooner because the preschooler didn’t have the typical celiac symptoms. But here’s the problem: Experts say there really aren’t “typical” celiac symptoms anymore. “What we read in textbooks is that the child will come in with diarrhea and irritability, and maybe he isn’t growing well. But the pattern is changing,” says Mohsin Rashid, a paediatric gastroenterologist and professor in the pediatrics department at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Kids are now coming in with any combination of the disease’s long list of seemingly disparate symptoms, which include bowel problems (diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, stomach aches, bloating), rash, irritability, fatigue, inadequate growth, anemia, damage to tooth enamel, migraines and hyperactivity.

Because celiac disease shows up in so many different ways, both kids and adults can end up plagued with problems for years—even decades—before finally getting diagnosed. “Less than 20 percent of children present with classic celiac disease symptoms,” says Rashid. “Family doctors may have a problem cluing in.”

How do I know if my kid’s at risk for celiac disease?

Celiac disease is genetically based, so it’s more common in kids who have a family history of the condition (although Gariepy can’t find it in her or her husband’s family). If a parent has celiac, his or her kids have a 10 percent chance of inheriting the condition, according to Health Canada. Testing for celiac is also recommended for kids with type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease and Down syndrome, since they, too, have a higher risk of having celiac.

But any kid can develop it, even babies (after they’ve ingested gluten for the first time). Once thought of as rare, celiac disease affects one in 133 people in Canada, according to an estimate by the Canadian Celiac Association. And worryingly, it’s becoming more common: “There’s a consensus that the numbers are going up across the country,” says Rashid. “Just like allergic diseases and other autoimmune diseases are on the rise, celiac disease is on the rise.”

Isn’t the gluten-free thing a fad?

From the rich and famous to your next-door neighbour, gluten-free converts abound and are very vocal about the merits of ditching the offending protein, whether or not their health depends on it. A 2013 survey by Udi’s Healthy Foods estimated that a whopping 4.3 million Canadians had gone gluten-free or had reduced gluten in their diets. In 2014, Canadian chefs ranked “gluten-free” the No. 1 menu trend, dethroning quinoa and local food. And you can’t visit a grocery store today without strolling by an ever-widening shelf of gluten-free snacks and baked goods.

Those who avoid gluten based on preference (ahem, trend) swear they feel better when they don’t eat gluten. It may be they have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (see “Celiac? Or just sensitive?” below). But for those who truly have celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is no fad, nor is it optional: It’s the only treatment for the condition, and it has to be followed strictly.

I think my kid might have celiac disease. What now?

The first step is obvious: Talk to your kid’s doctor. She can order a simple blood test that screens for celiac; in every province except Ontario, the test is free.

But don’t be surprised if she’s dismissive of your concerns. “Celiac is one of those diseases that can masquerade as many things for a long time,” says Calgary paediatrician Janice Heard. “Unless a doctor’s radar is really tuned into celiac, it’s easy to miss.” If you feel strongly about it, push for the blood test, advises Rashid. Or, skip the lab completely and hit up your drugstore. Some pharmacies carry an at-home celiac test.

Here’s what not to do if you suspect celiac disease: cut gluten from your kid’s daily menu. “When you remove gluten from the diet, your body will heal, and when you go for the blood test, it may be falsely negative,” says Rashid. Even after a positive test, kids should continue eating gluten until a procedure called an endoscopy officially confirms the diagnosis. Some parents banish gluten before any testing, just to see how their kid might react, but don’t be tempted. You’ll just have to reintroduce it before testing, and most kids feel much sicker when they eat gluten after having cut it out.

Is my kid going to hate the gluten-free diet?

Cutting out gluten is a bit harder than it sounds because the protein hides in so many different foods, like some condiments, chocolate bars and even rice cereal. Just like in families with food allergies, parents and, eventually, kids have to become expert ingredient-label readers, looking out for wheat, barley, rye, oats and triticale (a wheat-rye hybrid).

Events like birthday parties and school pizza lunches become a challenge. My seven-year-old son was diagnosed with celiac last September, and on top of missing some of his favourite treats—bye-bye, Timbits—he’s also still getting used to the social fallout of the diet. “I don’t really like bringing my own food everywhere, because I don’t want any attention,” he tells me.

But usually the positive changes in your kid make the effort worthwhile. “Alyson’s colour improved, the dark circles under her eyes got better, her cranky behaviour improved and she began eating on a normal schedule. She went from having no energy at all to dancing three days a week,” says Gariepy. As for my son, there haven’t been any dramatic changes so far, but it may be too early to see results; it can take a while for the body to heal. Still, the diet is the medicine he needs, since untreated celiac can cause stunted growth, malnutrition and even osteoporosis and cancer.

I can’t sugar-coat it: Getting told your kid has a lifelong disease sucks. But there’s a silver lining when that disease is celiac. In most cases, your kid will not be prescribed any medicines nor scheduled for any surgeries. He’ll simply need to stop eating gluten. It’s not a cure, but it’s a treatment that’s 100 percent effective. Personally, I like those odds.

Celiac? Or just sensitive?

Even after ruling out celiac disease, some parents remain convinced gluten is the culprit behind their child’s medical or behavioural problems. They may be right. In 2012, international researchers coined the term “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” to describe a condition that mimics celiac disease but is less severe—more like an intolerance. That said, more recent research questions whether the condition is real. Even the world’s foremost experts still aren’t sure, but there’s one thing they do agree on: Parents shouldn’t take gluten out of their kid’s diet without the guidance of their doctor.

Is celiac different from a wheat allergy?

Celiac disease is not the same as a wheat allergy. Celiac is a lifelong autoimmune condition in which gluten causes damage to the small intestine. A wheat allergy is an immune response to the protein in wheat and, like all allergies, can sometimes be outgrown.

A version of this article appeared in our January 2016 issue with the headline “Sneaky celiac” p. 24.

 

Discipline

How to deal when your kid's a tattletale

Does your kid like to tattle? And not just on their friends and siblings, but on other adults? We’ve got advice for parents who hear “I’m telling” more often than they’d like.

Kadyn Green is a compulsive tattler. The six-year-old in Edmonton has no scruples about squealing on anyone, from his younger brother and random children at the park, to adults who exhibit less-than-perfect behaviour.

“He has no shame. He tells on everyone, no matter where we are,” says his mom, Rebecca. “Whether we’re at a playground, running errands, or just out and about, if anyone does something they shouldn’t, I’ll hear about it.”

Green’s oldest might be a little informant, but it’s not uncommon for children his age to rat out their friends. “It’s during these school-aged years that kids are beginning to gain social skills, specifically in relation to their peers,” says Kylee Goldman, a child and family therapist in Aurora, Ont.

While there are other reasons for tattling—think one-upping siblings, looking for attention, testing boundaries with grown-ups — there’s a more common culprit behind this whistle-blowing behaviour: “These kids have an early sense of moral reasoning—children who snitch do so because they’ve seen someone do something that they perceive to be wrong,” Goldman explains.

Kadyn is always the first kid to point out questionable offences. Green says she hears things like this regularly: “Mom! That girl just littered!” and “Mom! That guy shouldn’t be parked liked that!”

Of course, there are benefits to having a kid who sings like a canary about every little thing. “We want children to report when there is potential injury to someone or potential damage to property,” says Paul McDonnell, a child psychologist in Fredericton. “We also want our kids to learn that there are times when intervention is necessary. Many kids do not report episodes of bullying for fear of being labelled a spoilsport,” he adds.

And that’s the key—explaining when it’s appropriate to blab, and when it’s better to keep quiet. “The challenge for parents and teachers is to teach kids to discriminate between a social situation involving a sibling or peer that can be handled independently, versus a situation that is urgent enough to tell an adult,” says McDonnell.

Sarah Gardiner, a mom of two in Fergus, Ont., spends time talking to her daughters—Julia, 7, and Emily, 4—about this very topic. “The line is blurry for them. We hear a lot of, ‘Julia took three cookies for snack!’” she says. “If someone hurts someone else, or does something mean on purpose, telling an adult is warranted. I want to know if one of her friends is picked on at school, or if she’s upset by someone else’s actions,” Gardiner says. “But when Emily bumps into Julia by accident as she’s spinning like a ballerina and immediately apologizes, Julia doesn’t need to tattle.”

When explaining the difference to kids, teach them that tattling often means that you’re trying to get someone into trouble, while telling means that you’re trying to help.

The best way to handle young blabbermouths is to find out the reason behind the snitching. “Parents can ask their child, ‘Are you telling me about what Suzie did to help her or hurt her?’ If she says she wants to help, assess whether there really is a need for assistance, and see what you can do,” says Goldman. “But if she says she wants to hurt Suzie, or get her in trouble, it’s a good opportunity to remind your child that this isn’t acceptable.”

For children who do this type of tattling frequently, Goldman suggests ignoring the tales—an approach that’s been shown to decrease the behaviour. “Just be cautious that you aren’t using this strategy when your child actually needs help.”

School-age

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