In a recent interview with Waterloo University, following her 2022 Arts Alumni Achievement Award Dr. Jillian Roberts discussed her thoughts on the current challenges of the world.

As a young teacher, the challenges that Jillian Roberts observed in the lives of her students left her with questions about how to help children in difficult circumstances—and led her to a PhD in educational psychology. Today, Roberts builds bridges between academia and the community as a prominent researcher, clinician, community organizer, and compassionate advocate for children’s mental health. As professor of educational psychology at the University of Victoria, she helped found the Centre for Outreach Education (CORE). As the founder of the MindKey Health network, she has maintained an active practice for over 20 years.

Roberts is also the author of two influential children’s book series that are widely used in school systems and public libraries across North America; they introduce children to subjects that can be tricky for parents to navigate, such as scary news stories, prejudice and poverty, and big life transitions. She is a regular speaker and a guest contributor with CBC, Today’s Parent, Huffington Post, and Global News, among others.

What concerns you most about children and youth growing up in today’s very complex world?

COVID has presented our community with many challenges, and one of the most significant is the disruption it has caused to the development of childhood social skills. Prolonged isolation, fear of human contact, emotional stress, grief and loss, and the sheer impact of COVID has negatively affected young children’s social development. The opportunity to develop and nurture relationships is critical for children’s happiness and growth. Children learn social skills from childhood friends that last a lifetime. Interpersonal success is an important protective factor that helps foster resilience—the ability to bounce back from setbacks. Positive human connection is the cornerstone of mental health and psychological resilience.

What factors are critical to helping children grow into “caring, integrity-enriched, problem-solving twenty-first-century adults”?

We need to prioritize the mental health and socio-emotional needs of children. Academics are important, but I worry that many children are overprogrammed and do not have enough time to play and interact freely with other children. We need to ensure that children have ample time to spend with friends. For some children, friendship skills come easily. Others may need some help developing social skills from the important adults in their lives. I find it helpful to underscore an important concept: “To have good friends, you must first be a good friend.” This reframes the conversation from a passive one (“Will kids like me?”) to an active one (“What can I do to show that I am a good friend?”). I call this the “Number One Friendship Rule.”

Could you share any experiences from your time as an undergraduate at Waterloo that contributed to your professional life path?

I built the academic foundation for my career at the University of Waterloo, and I have always been proud to be a University of Waterloo alumna. I studied the Humanities: History, French, and Literature. I recall hours and hours spent reading, striving to comprehend, and formulating and expressing my own learning in both English and French. This academic foundation has been a critical part of my journey. My strong foundation in arts and letters has enabled me to communicate my knowledge of psychology to the youngest of readers. An Arts foundation allows students to learn a wide range of subject matter, and helps them to deeply understand the human condition. I will be forever grateful to the University of Waterloo for this privilege of learning