How to Help Students Manage Fear and Anxiety About Returning to School

How to Help Students Manage Fear and Anxiety About Returning to School

by Lisa Davis, August 7, 2020

Almost every student experiences nerves when they start a new school year. What happens if they can’t find their classroom? What if they don’t have any classes with their friends? What if the teacher doesn’t like them? These are all very real concerns during a standard school year – but this is not a standard school year. This year, parents are helping their children cope with new-year jitters while also assuring them that they are safe from coronavirus. 

Florida teachers and parents have expressed their concerns about returning this fall, highlighting risks like packed classrooms, tight hallways, and the nature of kids to touch or hug each other. However, many kids are worried, too. They don’t want to get sick, but they also don’t want to be left out socially. 

This year isn’t going to be easy for you or your child and you may have some difficult conversations ahead of you. Here is how you can help your child manage fear and anxiety about returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding Your Child’s Fears

As a parent, you likely have multiple fears related to the pandemic and the school year, but your child has fears, too. There are several things that are causing them to feel stressed and scared as the deadline to return back to the classroom approaches. Here is what your child is thinking right now:

  • Will classes be harder this year because we didn’t finish learning the material last year? 
  • Will I still be able to play sports or participate in the after-school activities that I love?
  • When can I see my friends in person? Are they still my friends or did they move on during the summer – forming new friendships while we stayed away? 
  • What if my teacher doesn’t like me or expects me to learn faster to make up for lost time?
  • Will my close friends choose to learn remotely, leaving me alone in the classroom? Will I be the only one learning at home while everyone else is at school?
  • What if I can’t remember all of the new rules and guidelines to stay safe? 
  • What if my mask is uncomfortable?
  • What if I get sick?

These are all relevant fears. Your kids aren’t just worried about catching COVID-19, they are also concerned about how the pandemic will affect their social status and friend groups – two things that are essential to the mental wellbeing of most children.

Look for Emotional and Behavioral Cues

Just because your child feels anxiety about returning to school doesn’t mean they will tell you what they are thinking. The fact is, they may not fully understand this anxiety and might not know how to vocalize or respond to it. 

“Anxiety often presents as a constellation of negative behaviors,” Katie Hurley writes for the Washington Post. “Parents and educators are quick to spot the behavior problem, but they don’t always see the underlying anxiety that drives it.” 

For example, your child might suddenly have a temper or cry every day before school. They might lash out at their siblings or refuse to do their chores. Anxiety can also look different at home compared to school. A student might be well-behaved at school but act out at home. 

The emotional reactions you see are a result of stress and anxiety – emotions that your child may be feeling for the first time at this level of intensity. They don’t know how to define these emotions or express them. As a result, they look for other outlets to express their feelings – outlets that are often considered disruptive or destructive. 

Even if your child (or pre-teen or teenager) isn’t showing any problematic behaviors, they may be coping with anxiety in other ways. They may spend more time in their room (more so than an average teenager) or withdraw into themselves, becoming quieter around friends and family. 

During the next few months, look for any signs of behavioral change and know that they could be the result of anxiety because of the new school year.

How to Help Kids Cope With Anxiety About Returning to School

There is no easy answer for parents who want to help their kids overcome anxiety about returning to school. However, there are steps you can take in the weeks leading up to the school year and during the first few months to help your child with the adjustment process. 

1. Prepare Them for a New Routine

As a parent, you don’t have much in your control regarding the new school year. However, do what you can to prepare your child for the coming months. 

“Kids like things to be known and to be predictable,” Kary Scriven, clinical director for Child Crisis Arizona, says. 

The more information you can provide to your child ahead of time, the better. Share news from the school system and help your child practice things like waving instead of hugging or wearing a mask. If these behaviors start to seem normal, they won’t seem as scary or overwhelming when applied to a new classroom setting. 

You can keep this in mind for a normal (non-pandemic) school year as well. Some parents will get kids in the habit of waking up early and packing up a backpack the week before school starts to help them get ready for the big day. 

2. Be Honest

Your children are going to ask you difficult questions in the next few weeks. Some of these are going to be impossible to answer. For example: when will the pandemic be over? When can I stop wearing this mask? Countless kids have asked these questions, leaving parents confused about how to answer. 

Honesty is the best policy in this case. You can admit that you don’t know when the pandemic will pass, but express hope that it will be over within a few months. It is okay to say when you don’t know something. This is better than providing false hope with promises that the pandemic will be over in a week or two. 

3. Explain Your Decisions

As a parent, you may need to make some decisions that are in your child’s best interest. For example, while some summer camps opened this year, you may have kept your child at home to continue social distancing. Unfortunately, your child might not understand why you made these choices. Do your best to explain to them why you are taking certain actions throughout this pandemic. 

Even with these explanations, your child may not take the decision well. For example, if you opt to continue virtual learning, your child might think you are keeping them away from their friends. However, a clear explanation is almost always better than, “because I said so.” 

4. Show Them How to Express Emotions

During their developmental years, children are sponges to learn how to behave within the world. They learn to express their stress, anxiety, and fear by watching you, their teachers, their friends, and characters on TV and the internet. You can set an example during this time for your kids to follow. 

Explain to your kids what your stress and anxiety feels like and why you feel that way. You may have stress about your kids returning to school because you want them to be happy and healthy. Voicing your feelings and emotions normalizes stress and anxiety while providing a roadmap for kids on how to express their own frustrations. 

5. Talk to Your Kids Often

Even if your child isn’t exhibiting problematic behaviors, you can still help them by checking in often to understand their stress levels. 

“It’s important to be calm and proactive in your conversations with children – check in with them to see how they are doing,” the team at Unicef writes. “Their emotions will change regularly and you need to show them that’s okay.” 

These regular conversations can also help you identify when something is wrong before the problem (or their behavior) gets out of hand. 

Every child is going to experience the new school year with different levels of emotion. However, as a whole, anxiety about returning to school is going to be higher this year than ever before. Keep this in mind so you can help your child mentally cope with the stress of the next few months.