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Managing Return-to-School Anxieties during COVID-19

Asha Thomas, LMFT
Mental Health Therapist
September 1, 2021

As some COVID-19 restrictions lift, and communities cautiously return to a more familiar day-to-day existence, children and families are returning to physical classrooms. The back-to-school transition can be exciting for some children and daunting for others. 

It can be helpful to look for changes in your child’s behavior, as this may be their way of communicating their emotions to you when they don’t know (or have) the words to use. For example:

  • Increased tantrums, irritability, or argumentative behavior
  • Low energy
  • Problems focusing 
  • Withdrawing
  • Complaints of stomach aches or headaches
  • Fearful or anxious behavior
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Reduced or increased appetite 
  • Clinginess 
  • Regressed behavior (like thumb-sucking or bed-wetting)

Being worried, feeling overwhelmed, or showing apprehension about going back to school should be expected. Along with the need to socialize and learn, children now have a heightened awareness (and lots of questions) about what is safe and healthy. Things that they used to do every day at school—hugging friends, drinking from a water fountain, or chatting with teachers—now create uncertainty. In some cases, children may have lost friends or family members to the virus and are trying to manage the added weight of grief and other emotions.  

For many families, the pandemic created a snowball effect of unpredictability and instability. As households dealt with the unsteadiness that each day seemed to bring, the structure and schedule children had been used to was likely turned upside down. So it makes sense that part of creating stability within children is creating stability around them. If they know what to expect, they become less uncertain, more comfortable, and more confident over time. This can be helped along with consistent routines and clear expectations:

  • Set aside time for being physically active, encourage healthy eating, regulate screen time, and set consistent sleep schedules.
  • If possible, visit the school campus with your child so they can re-familiarize themself with the environment and teachers.
  • If your child has been feeling isolated, make plans for them to spend a little time with their friends (following appropriate safety measures) before school starts. Building up friendships again can help build up courage and the desire to go back. Knowing they’re going to see familiar faces can make the first day of school something to look forward to, rather than something to dread.
  • Make sure they know what to expect at school with regard to health guidelines so there are no surprises if possible. Talk about the school’s rules for when, where, and how to wear a mask, how to socially distance, and about hand washing or using hand sanitizer.

Mixed emotions are normal when returning to school, and a child who is excited one day might refuse to go the next. There are children who may be excited and others who are anxious and hesitant. Teens and preteens may express feelings of frustration because of the limitations that have been (and continue to be) present, or stressed due to fears of falling behind in school requirements. It can help to offer them understanding, validation, and encouragement:

  • Provide a safe space for them to express themselves. Acknowledge how they feel, let them know they’re heard, and help them name their feelings, for example, “I can hear and see you’re feeling afraid.” 
  • Provide space for safety. After validation, children need a sense of security related to their initial emotions. “You are safe right now. Your school is following the safety guidelines, and if anything changes, we will let you know if we have to stay home again.” 
  • Offer to help them manage and cope with their feelings. Younger children may experience separation anxiety, and it may help to share with them what you’ll be doing while they’re at school as a form of reassurance. You can talk about work or say something like, “After I drop you off at school, I’ll go to the store to buy some milk. What kind of fruit would you like for an after-school snack?” 
  • Older children may express frustration and worry through questions. It can be helpful for them to hear that you understand what they’re going through, and that you’re willing to work together to help them figure out answers or solutions. One response might be, “That’s a good question. Do you want to help me find more information about it?”

Once your child feels heard and understood, it’s a good time to teach coping skills and encourage them to use those skills during future moments of stress or challenge. Knowing what to do builds confidence, making them feel better equipped to regulate their own emotions when they need to, like during an anxious moment. A few coping skills they can learn and utilize are:

  • Mindfulness: Ask your child to help name the five senses in that stressful moment. You can say, “What can you hear, feel, smell, see, and taste right now?” Or, “What are five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste?” Being mindful and present physically is a valuable skill that mentally slows one down, creating a calmer inner state.
  • Deep breathing: Help your child pay attention to their body and breath. Ask them to picture a balloon in their stomach that they are trying to slowly inflate and deflate. Making this a fun activity (like with blowing bubbles) can also help them practice the skill without it feeling like “work.” 
  • Grounding object: Allow your child to take a grounding/transitional object to school. This should be a small object (something they can carry in their backpack like a button, stone, or coin). The grounding object represents the safety and comfort of their home, and can make them feel like they have part of that peace with them at school.
  • Positivity/Silver Linings: Looking for the good in each day and situation can help children cope with difficult challenges. Encourage this viewpoint by asking children what they are looking forward to at school, who they are excited to see, or what their favorite activity was each day. 

Practicing these skills consistently can help children become more comfortable with using the techniques regularly. Parents may also find these techniques helpful with managing their own worries; by actively practicing them, they are modeling healthy coping behaviors to their children.

Of course, every situation is different. There may be many other determining factors that influence a family’s decision not to return a child to in-person classes. For example, living with high-risk family members may keep children at home to avoid exposure at school. Some children may have been thriving through their virtual learning experience because there are less distractions at home. However, other children may rely on school support resources for learning, and returning to in-person classes may be the only option to utilize these services. It’s important for families to recognize their children’s needs and examine the risk and benefits of these options to help make the appropriate decision. Talking to school counselors and leadership, and keeping up to date on the latest guidance from reputable sources can also help parents make the best decisions for their family.  

These tips and strategies can support parents as they navigate these adjustments with their children. It’s important to note though that if a child’s behavioral problems are becoming more frequent, more severe, or unmanageable, it is important to speak with their pediatrician to explore possible solutions or resources that are available. 

Being aware of your childrens’ physical and mental health needs, following health guidelines, and staying informed of changes in your community can help with the upcoming adjustments and transitions. As parents support their children and care for their families, it’s also important for them to check in and regulate their own anxieties, as it can set the stage for how your child reacts to the situation as well.