Helping Your Anxious Child When School Re-Opens

For children who already struggled with anxiety, the Covid-19 pandemic has added another layer of worries. And for those kids who were not worriers, this time being home-bound may have started them on some fears that we never anticipated. For both groups, however, going back to school may have caused similar concerns.
Recently, a middle-school child told me, “I can’t imagine wearing a mask for hours! At least at home, I don’t have to wear one. And when we go out, I only have to wear it for a little bit of time.” Another child said, “I really miss being with my friends. But I am really scared that I am going to get sick if I sit next to them in school and we do work together.” And a senior in high school opined, “It’s not going to be the same as a real senior year…no sports, no parties, no hanging out like we used to. We might just as well do it online and get it over with.”
My heart breaks for all of these students. No matter what plans we make, there is so much that is unknown about how going back to school will work and about whether Covid-19 cases will increase. Even though our children feel isolated and are losing their sense of connection to friends, coaches, and teachers, returning to school still feels somewhat scary. And students are finding it hard to talk about their fears. In the past, their worries were concrete and identifiable; now, there are fears of a new illness that no one yet has the answers to.
Below are some tips to help students deal with back-to-school worries.
• Get back into a regular school schedule for waking and going to bed. It will help give structure to the day, even if there are some days when children are learning virtually.
• Post a schedule in a location that the children can see, especially if they are learning in a hybrid curriculum of in-person and virtual classes.
• Start your back to school preparations earlier than you normally would. Even things like shopping for school supplies may feel different.
• Practice proper hand-washing and mask protocol so that your children feel prepared for this new aspect of being near others in a classroom.
• Emphasize the social benefits of going back to school and interacting with friends. Social interaction is one of the driving forces behind the desire to get children back to school. Let your children know that it is important to you also.
• Talk to your children about the plans for the school year. Be honest about what you know and what you do not. Tell them what will be different.
• Ask your children open-ended questions about what they think the school year will be like. Listen to their answers and probe if you are hearing things that are worrisome. Reassure them that whatever occurs, you will be there to advocate for and help them. Problem-solve with your children about how to handle the things that are bothering them, anything from how to handle bathroom breaks, or how to keep track of your school materials when you go from the classroom to the dining room table.
• Be empathic and show concern, even if you think your child’s worries are baseless. By modeling appropriate coping skills, you are showing them how to manage their own anxiety.
• Discuss special concerns that your child may have with the school administration or teacher. If you have a special needs child, make sure that the curriculum contains the programs that are necessary for your child to learn effectively.
• Work with your PTA or SEPAG to communicate with the school administration about any concerns you may have.
It is normal for there to be some anxiety at the beginning of a regular school year, and this year is anything but normal. There is no easy answer to the anxiety children are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. Keep a close eye on your children’s behavior and moods. If you notice any significant changes that are worrisome – things like changes in appetite, sleep, school performance – ask your pediatrician or psychologist for help.