Helping kids deal with back-to-school anxiety

Many schools are finally reopening their physical doors this fall. Here’s how to support children through yet another transition.

Allison Smith’s five- and nine-year-old sons are already anxious about the first day of school and seeing their pre-pandemic friends again. Although the boys chose a hybrid option in the spring, not all kids returned—and those who did had a far-from-typical experience.

“Because they haven’t been able to develop bonds over the last year, it’s almost like they’re starting with a brand-new set of kids,” says Smith, a special education administrator in Southern California. Her older son asks questions like, “Are they still going to be friends with me, or am I not going to have any friends?”

Smith’s sons are not alone. Following the CDC recommendation that schools prioritize reopening as soon as possible—now with guidelines for everyone to mask up—many districts are resuming full-time, in-person instruction this fall. (That includes Los Angeles and New York City, which boast the largest school districts in the United States.) The about-face from the unusual norms kids have been experiencing is enough to give them whiplash—and that means different iterations of back-to-school anxiety are playing out across the country.

After all, transitions are difficult enough for children. “Routines help kids—and adults—feel grounded and safe,” says Amie Bettencourt, a child psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. And a return to “normal” school is yet another disruption to routines after a year and a half filled with them.

Parents can do a lot to help kids successfully slide back into in-person learning, starting with recognizing the signs of anxiety and addressing them head-on. During this fraught transition, everyone needs a little extra support and grace—parents included.

The science behind why transitions are hard for kids

Predictability is a hallmark of human development,” says Stephanie Jones, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. For example, infants learn that they can expect food and care from consistent caregivers. When those basic needs are met, children are free to engage and learn from the world around them. So transitions—especially ones that upend routines—are difficult for kids even under the best of circumstances.

Unlike adults, kids are still developing the ability to control their behavior and regulate their emotions, says Jessica Church, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. Her team studies the evolution of these skills in children as they mature by measuring brain activity when they engage in executive function tasks that require focus, planning, and the ability to suppress impulses.

Church’s research found that though the brain regions responsible for regulating behavior are present in kids, those regions—as well as how they communicate with each other—continue to develop throughout adolescence. The hiccups in control that result because of these undeveloped regions means that kids can’t anticipate change—and have stronger emotional reactions to it than adults.

The problem is magnified in kids with mental health issues like autism, ADHD, or anxiety. “They can be more rigid in their thinking,” says Tori Cordiano, a psychologist and director of research at Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Ohio. “Or they can catastrophize and have a harder time picturing the different ways that things can go.”

How to tell if kids are anxious about their return

When life abruptly changed in March 2020, all of kids’ natural inclinations—to explore the world, to connect with others—suddenly became scary and dangerous. So kids might be understandably unsettled now that they’re being asked to pivot again.

Most parents might expect to see back-to-school anxiety that’s similar to what kids felt in pre-pandemic times: things like what school will look like, or whether they’ll be able to adapt to new routines. But the pandemic has brought a new level of anxiety for many children.

“Some kids I’ve seen are worried about having to gear up for another year with masks, while others are worried about not wearing masks because they’ve become so accustomed to them [and the protection they provide],” Cordiano says. (Like the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that everyone two years old and up wear masks in school, regardless of vaccination status.)

Bettencourt says that each child’s reactions will depend on how their family approached the pandemic. “If there was anxiety in the family around COVID, or they didn’t leave the house at all, those kids may have more anxiety about going back to school,” she says.

Kids who were impacted directly by COVID-19 are also likely to have a traumatic response, Bettencourt adds: “If any of their caregivers became really sick from COVID, for example—kids might suffer separation anxiety because they’re worried that something bad will happen while they’re apart.”

Some kids may withdraw or obsess over their fears, but anxiety can sometimes manifest in surprising ways. In younger kids, it often shows up as sudden tantrums or excessive whining and clinginess. Potty-trained kids could experience accidents, or independent sleepers may suddenly want to snooze with their parents.

“Older kids can become aggressive or angry as a mechanism to put off adults and avoid dealing with the anxiety,” Bettencourt says. Kids might either pretend to be sick—or actually feel sick. Headaches, stomachaches, and nausea are all physical symptoms associated with anxiety.

Keep a record of what you observe to identify patterns, including whether they pop up in different settings, and enlist teachers to see if they’ve noticed out-of-character behavior in your child. If their anxiety is affecting their daily lives—avoiding regular activities, disrupting sleep or eating behaviors—reach out to your school or a mental health professional for help.

How parents can ease back-to-school anxiety

Kids aren’t the only ones more acutely affected by back-to-school worries this year. Cordiano says that it’s crucial for parents to manage their own anxiety so they’re able to help kids with this transition.

An important first step is to acknowledge and validate kids’ fears. You might say, “Of course you’re anxious about going back to school. Feeling nervous is a normal and healthy reaction to big changes. What can I do to help you feel your best?”

“Then create some fun, optimistic energy around returning to school,” Cordiano suggests. For instance, shop for school supplies together and ask kids who they’re most looking forward to seeing. You can also focus on things children can control, like how to decorate their homework space.

In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, Bettencourt suggests that parents practice transitions with their kids. For example, if your child hasn’t been around other kids for a while, let them spend some time with a friend or two. “And start shifting bedtimes back to how they’re going to be during the school year a few weeks ahead of time,” she adds.

For kids who are particularly anxious about getting sick, knowledge is power. Find out how schools are working to keep kids healthy, and talk to children about the procedures in place to protect them. And remind them that we know a lot more about the virus now than we did a year ago.

“Open up a dialogue with them to understand what they’re worried about and to gently correct misinformation,” Bettencourt says.

Getting as much information as possible from schools about what kids can expect also gives them a sense of control. Some have been offering campus tours or meet-and-greets with teachers to help alleviate student (and parent) anxiety. The principal at Smith’s school hosts regular coffee chats with parents, where she describes everything from how the kids will eat lunch to the rotation schedule of the playground.

Because children crave predictability, Jones, who designs social-emotional curriculum for schools, says parents could create new routines at home. Perhaps kids can lead a five-minute yoga session before the day starts, or everyone can engage in a friendly card game after changing into pajamas.  

Jones also finds it helpful to have dedicated space and time for connecting and talking about how everyone’s feeling. Dubbed a “feelings circle” in her research, it’s a chance for everyone to share their experiences in a non-judgmental, open forum, like dinnertime.

Above all, be emotionally and physically present for your kids. And expect the unexpected as we make the bumpy transition back to school. In these crazy times, Jones often finds herself repeating this mantra: “It’s going to be OK, even if we have to let things go a little bit.”

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