Children tend to feel anxious about big changes. So, it’s understandable that for many students, resuming in-person learning after more than a year of virtual schooling is going to be difficult, especially as fears about the pandemic persist. Younger children, in particular, may feel overwhelmed by suddenly being in the noisy, busy, sometimes crowded and socially rich environment of school when they’ve been home for so long.
Many children struggle with their mental health and the start of school, even at the best of times, is challenging. According to the CDC, approximately 4.4 million children nationwide ages 3 to 17-years-old have been diagnosed with anxiety, and approximately 1.9 million children within that same age range have been diagnosed with depression. Mental health challenges like anxiety and depression affect a child’s learning and development. So, as you prepare for the school year ahead, it’s important to be proactive in helping your young person navigate the emotional highs and lows. Here are some tips for easing their back-to-school fears and helping them cope:
- Don’t pass your stress on to your child – This is often a stressful time of year for parents too. So, as a parent, you should be practicing some self-care to manage your stress. Try to remain calm around your child.
- Listen and validate – Ask your child what they are feeling nervous or scared about. Simply listen and resist the urge to start talking. Let them lead the conversation. Then, show them you understand and empathize. Reassure them. If your child knows they have a safe place to share their emotions without interruption, they will be more likely to communicate with you and accept your help.
- Prepare in advance – Talk to your child about what school will be like. Anxious kids often do better when they have all the information about the start of school in advance so they can process. Go over their schedule as many times as they need it and have their supplies ready. Sometimes, even a test run is helpful. Take your child to visit their classroom and show them their desk, if possible.
- Break summer sleep habits – Get on a school sleep schedule during the last weeks of summer break, so they will be able to get up in the mornings. Remember, a well-rested child is a more resilient child.
- Have a conversation about COVID – Be honest and straightforward about the virus and that school may be different this year, but also inform your child about the precautions their school is taking to keep them safe. For younger children, not accustomed to wearing masks, start practicing in advance so that seven hours with a mask on their face won’t feel overwhelming. Also, practice social distancing and handwashing routines with them.
- Remind your child of the positives – While it is important to validate your child’s feelings, it is also helpful to remind them of the things they like about school. Have conversations about recess, activities, classes or teachers they enjoy. Sometimes anxious kids forget that they actually have fun at school.
- Avoid the morning rush – Even if it means getting up a few minutes earlier, giving your family enough time to get ready and out the door, is key to maintaining calm. Having your child pack up everything they need for school and decide what clothes to wear the night before, will likely ease the stress in the morning.
- Encourage your child to practice self-care – Older children and teens can take charge of their well-being. Encourage them to make sure they get enough sleep, make healthy eating choices and exercise.
- Reach out for help – Let your teachers know if your child is anxious before the start of school. Share some of your child’s specific fears. This way the adults in the classroom can be on the lookout and jump in if their student seems to be having a hard time.
The best you can do for your child is to be vigilant for changes in mood or behaviors that may indicate that they are struggling with the start of school. If they appear to be upset, anxious or resistant to going to school beyond those first days and you are concerned about their mental health, contact your physician for an evaluation or reach out to a qualified mental health professional.