Going back to grade school or preschool after a long summer break can be stressful under normal circumstances. Throw in a global pandemic and constantly changing masking rules and it feels downright chaotic.
Fortunately, there are a few things parents and kids can do to lower the stress level no matter the situation.
COVID-19 Complicates Things
The 2021-2022 school year will be filled with even more anxiety than usual because of the pandemic. Schools and states vary wildly in terms of mask mandating and scheduling, but there’s also the hard truth that kids are out of sync when it comes to school. Last year forced millions of families to school from home in isolation, and that can cause some social and emotional hurdles for kids.
Dr. Nicholas Westers, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Health℠ and associate professor at UT Southwestern, provides a list of things for parents to look for as their children enter this unique school year:
- Rusty social skills and friendship breakdowns.
- Anxiety about health and the future.
- Bullying and peer pressure.
- Separation anxiety.
Be especially understanding about all of these issues if you see them in your children. They’ll need your support as they work through them at home and while at school. If you’re particularly concerned, contact your school’s guidance counselor, your pediatrician, or a childrens mental health expert. Each can provide you with the support and information you’re looking for.
- Validate their feelings: The last thing to tell a kid who is anxious about going back to school is that there’s nothing to be nervous about. Let them know it’s completely understandable why they’d be nervous and that you’re proud of them for being brave by working through their anxiety.
- Help them relax: Talk with your kids about ways to stay calm in case their anxiety starts to overwhelm them. Deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and getting up and moving are all options. Find the one that works for them.
- Focus on what they can control and their safety: Remind your child there is a lot about school they can control, like who they can play with or what they create during art. Find creative ways to increase that control, like allowing them to pick what they eat for lunch or what they wear each day. As it relates to COVID-19, help them feel safe by reminding them that handwashing and mask wearing are extremely effective at keeping them healthy and are both things they can do themselves.
- Find a routine: Speaking of things they can control, let your kid help establish a morning routine. For e-learners, that could mean getting breakfast and settling into a comfy spot for school. For in-class learners, that could mean establishing what time you will leave in the morning or the route you’ll take to school. Practice the routine BEFORE your first day of school so your kids will know what to expect and you can work out the kinks.
- Help find “unscheduled” hobbies and active time: As hectic and scheduled as a school day can be — especially if they’re in extracurricular activities — help your kids engage in some unscheduled downtime. Proper downtime alleviates stress and gives mom and dad some well-deserved quiet time, too. Whether it’s being outside, reading a book, or playing with toys, give your kids the time they need to recharge.
- Find other trusted adults: Sometimes kids just don’t want to talk to mom or dad about what’s bothering them. Make sure there are other trusted adults in their life they can talk to about what’s bothering them, such as a teacher, family friend, family member, community support person, or mental health professional.
- Self-care is everything: You might be experiencing anxiety over sending your kids back to school, and that’s okay! All of the advice given for children above can apply to adults, too. Set your schedule, find some alone time, and be active when you can. Also, put your phone away for an added destressor. (Endlessly scrolling the news or social media is only going to make your anxiety worse.)
- Set the tone: Kids are very perceptive and look to their parents for guidance. If you’re openly stressed and negative about school, they’ll take their cues from you. Regardless of where you find yourself this school year (e-learning or in-person), talk about the benefits and how much fun they’re going to have.
- Talk with others: You’re not alone! Other parents are having the same kinds of concerns that you are or have kids that are stressed about school. They may have some advice or some information that could help you and your family out. Also, get to know your neighbors if you don’t already. Your kids may be in the same class, and having a familiar face on the first day of school could be just what your child needs to feel less anxious.
- Be flexible: Especially during a pandemic where switching to remote learning could happen at a moment’s notice, be ready in case things change. Have the conversation with your employer about working remotely in case you have to start homeschooling. If your employer doesn’t allow for remote work, talk to your childcare provider about what will happen if schools close. And, of course, talk to your kids to make sure they know everyone — including you — is ready to make changes if it’s necessary.
- Think ahead about separation anxiety: Separation anxiety in preschoolers and in elementary school-aged kids will probably be more prevalent this year than in previous ones. Start preparing your kids for when they go back to school and find ways with them to make the transition easier. A prize or rewarding activity is one option to consider.
- Resist the urge to “rescue” your child socially: As hard as it is to think about your child having anxiety about a quadrillion different unforseen social situations, hold back the urge to bulldoze every obstacle. Show them you believe in their ability to navigate the situation themselves by offering your support but allowing them to work through the discomfort on their own.
As it is with all things regarding parenthood, the situation in your home will be totally different than your neighbor’s. Your kids may be a bundle of nerves, while their friends are really excited for school. If you have more than one child, attitudes may differ within your own household! Whatever the situation, work with your kid(s) to find the solutions that work for them … and for you.
As always, if you feel like your child’s anxiety (or your own) is escalating to a place that concerns you, never hesitate to contact your doctor or mental health expert. They’re ready and willing to help families through this tough and confusing time.