Four-year-old Hudson Yorke loves his teachers, friends and doing arts and crafts in his junior kindergarten classroom. But since teacher strikes began in Ontario, he has been a little more reluctant to get on the school bus in the morning.
“The inconsistency now with going to school a day and missing a day, and then going in a day and then missing a day,” said Ashley Yorke, Hudson’s mother. “He’s had a couple of mornings that were really tough and he didn’t want to go at all.”
Hudson, a student at New Lowell Central Public School in New Lowell, Ont., is on the autism spectrum. Ms. Yorke said her son’s mood has changed over the past few weeks.
“He thrives on knowing what’s happening next,” she said. “Now he’s getting to the point where he’s coming into bed with me in the morning and he’s like, ‘Mommy, where are we going today?’ Because he doesn’t know.”
Some families across the province are struggling to cope with changes to routine during the rotating teacher strikes in Ontario. Since Jan. 1, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the largest education union in the country, has staged five walkouts, giving parents the required five days’ notice, sometimes more. The timing of the walkouts has coincided with Family Day and, in many school boards, one or two professional activity days.
Sporadic days off in the middle of the week can be disruptive for children, particularly those with developmental delays.
“Any change to routine is difficult for kids on the spectrum,” said Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and high-school teacher with the Peel District School Board. She said it is particularly difficult for young children to adapt.
Shannon Crookston, a mother of four boys, said her children have been out of sync.
“I will a 100-per-cent say that this strike has had a serious impact on not only their routines, like their everyday routines, but also their behaviour,” she said.
Ms. Crookston said getting her children to go to bed, limit iPad use and get up on the days when their school, William Burgess Elementary in Toronto, is open has been a challenge.
A lack of interaction with classmates at school has also affected the way they play at home, she said. “The fights that my kids have been getting into [are] over the silliest things,” she said. “You’re kind of like, you guys don’t fight over this normally.”
She said her oldest son, an 11-year-old in Grade 5, is aware of some of the issues fuelling the strikes, including class sizes.
“He goes ... 'If you add one or two more [students], I will never get attention,’” she said. Despite the challenges her family faces, Ms. Crookston said she fully supports the striking teachers.
Christina Marshall, a mother of two children at Sandowne Public School in Waterloo, Ont., said she’s noticed irregularity in her children’s energy levels.
“They're really hyper at night, whereas when they come home from school, they're tired,” she said. “It can be a bit challenging because I come home and they’re still raring to go.”
Ms. Marshall said she feels lucky to have family to help out with child care, but knows a lot parents who are using vacation days to stay home with their children.
“When parents are stressed, that exacerbates kids’ stress,” said Linda Cameron, a professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
“They're acting out probably because of the stress, and because they're tired and because everybody's anxious,” she said.
Prof. Cameron said maintaining consistency with meals, bedtimes and allowed screen time is helpful in easing tension at home. She also recommends using this time for educational activities, such as making tornadoes out of pop bottles, or to help children understand the changes going on around them.
“They don’t need to think it’s just a holiday but they have to understand that it’s a movement that will make the world a better place,” Prof. Cameron said.
Ms. Kirby-McIntosh, the autism coalition president and teacher, said while strikes are inconvenient, she supports the teachers’ fight for better learning conditions for students.
“If the changes that this government are proposing are allowed to go through, then actually it’s going to be infinitely harder for students with autism and other special needs,” she said. “There is no universe in which students with autism will do better because of larger class sizes.”