Back to school: Easing anxiety for kids returning to classrooms

Child wearning face mask

Whether it’s been 18 months or just a few, returning to the classroom this fall is likely to bring some measure of anxiety for students, parents and teachers alike.

The start of a new school year typically generates some combination of excitement and nervousness, but going back to school this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic will be unlike any other.

To help manage anxiety, College of Education faculty members said it’s important to acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead, and they offer several strategies to manage the stress facing everyone who will be part of the school year this fall.

“Listen, acknowledge and normalize the concerns and fears that kids or adolescents have,” said Ellen McWhirter, the Ann Swindells Professor in Counseling Psychology. “Be honest and direct about the fact that lots of people are concerned, and it makes sense to be worried about COVID.”

Parents and teachers can describe prevention behaviors and reinforce students’ sense of agency for doing things that can help prevent the virus, McWhirter added.

“Teachers can get kids engaged in problem-solving together,” McWhirter said. “Sharing the things that they've learned about COVID can create a sense of a shared project to help keep each other safe.”

Parents and teachers should find understanding allies with whom they can vent, commiserate or laugh with, which could include fellow parents, colleagues, members of a faith community and others.

Parents should ensure that their children are also staying connected both in school and out, and avoiding isolation.

“Build support networks and do everything possible to try and nurture those networks,” McWhirter said.

Adults should take breaks from the news, McWhirter said, and be aware of the people in their environment who might be loved but could foster could greater anxiety, and then stay away from them if they are having a bad day.

Parents will want to rebuild routines for their children, and adding mindfulness activities to those routines can help with focus and anxiety. But they should also make room for unexpected joys, such as filling a jar with ideas for fun activities to draw from during family time.

After everything they’ve been through in the last 18 months, getting kids’ time with their classmates and friends is critical, added Jennifer Ruef, an assistant professor who teaches best practices for learning and is a former longtime math teacher.

“We think of schools in terms of academics, but social interaction for children is definitely a priority at this time,” Ruef said. “So even if you feel like your kid isn't getting everything you would have hoped for in terms of the perfect academic year, the ability to interact with other humans worth a lot.”

Ruef echoed a similar sentiment she discussed last spring about avoiding terms such as “learning loss,” and falling behind academically. Instead, focus on successes and frame learning broadly.

“Humans are learning machines, and we can support our kids by appreciating their ingenuity, creativity, and resilience as important forms of learning,” she said.

She added that teachers, while taxed, will be important supports for students.

“Trust your teachers to navigate these challenging circumstances and trust that your kids are going to come out on the other side of this,” Ruef said.

Parents should be mindful that how they react to stressful situations is a model for their children.

“We need to be flexible in the face of challenge, be hopeful in the face of despair, and above all else, take good care,” Ruef said. “And as the pandemic drags on, we need to be there for our children. And that means we need to maintain ourselves as best we can.”

Ruef said adults should look for and celebrate small victories.

“We all need to keep manufacturing hope and motivation through these challenging times, and any accomplishment is a big deal right now,” Ruef said. “So it's worth having a celebratory moment.”

With uncertainty surrounding the start of school and the prospect of an uneven year, the College of Education’s Geovanna Rodriguez said everyone should be prepared to adapt.

“The most important piece of advice I have for parents and educators is to be flexible,” said Rodriguez, an assistant professor of school psychology in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences. “I expect as the delta variant increases to see more children and families having to quarantine or have some periods out of school.”

A strategy to manage that is for communication and transparency among parents, teachers and students, whether it’s about struggles in the classroom or online learning, or changes in in-person status, for example.

“It's about acknowledging this new reality we are in and accepting that this is more complicated than we thought and we aren't finished yet,” Rodriguez said.

She emphasized Ruef’s point that self-care for adults and students will continue to be important should burnout and fatigue emerge.

“You can think of self-care as parenting yourself and making sure that you have all your basic needs met before you meet the needs of others, because a lot of your anxiety and stress may spill over to your home environment and to your kids,” Rodriguez said.

Parents of students with disabilities can create rituals and routines at home that the students have control over, Rodriguez said, such as playing video or board games, physical activity like riding a bike, or creative outlets like reading, writing or listening to music as well as getting enough sleep and connecting with friends to help ease fears.

It may be helpful to request a meeting with a child’s educational team to discuss the new school year and any new or emerging concerns, as well as successes during remote learning, such as what worked and what didn’t. Parents have a right to request a meeting with their team at any time during the school year.

One strategy Rodriguez suggests for parents in the days leading up to the start of the school year is to expose kids and teens to the unfamiliar and do a test run of a school day like the morning drop off.

“Start creating routines or building a sense of familiarity,” Rodriguez said. “Take your child to school and make that commute in the morning, just to reorient them to the school campus. Walk around, go through some of those things that they'll be going through as they transition back, like wearing a mask and passing or free periods. Rehearsing and slowly exposing kids back to those routines will be helpful for parents and for children to feel that they're being supported in that transition.”

As the school year starts, teachers should look to rebuild relationships and a sense of community and safety in their classrooms. Rodriguez suggested teachers be intentional about check-ins with their students and use small groups as a way of doing wellness checks to provide an opportunity for students to share their feelings and their experiences.

“That will serve as a way of building not only a community within your class that empathizes and understands emotions that kids are going through, but also creates a peer support network for students that, if they hear that other students are also struggling, then it really normalizes the feeling,” Rodriguez said.

“We really have to take a proactive approach to meeting the emotional and social needs of the students who are coming back to us at school,” Rodriguez said.

By Jim Murez, University Communications