By Brittany Davies, Fraser Clinical Program Manager for School-Based Services and Pam Dewey • September 03, 2020
Back to school looks much different this year. Many children are doing distance learning at home. Other children are participating in hybrid learning, attending some in-person classes and also joining in classes at home. For children going back to the classroom, some schools are staggering attendance days, adopting shorter days and finding other ways to limit contact.
Navigating a pandemic and adjusting to a completely new routine is a lot for anyone to manage. Children may find this particularly hard to navigate.
Here are seven ways parents can help their children manage anxiety about returning to school.
Notice your own emotions
According to Fraser Clinical Program Manager for School-Based Services Brittany Davies, if your kid is experiencing anxiety, you should stop and take stock of your feelings as a parent. Children often pick up on your emotions or behavior. If you’ve been anxious, your child may start to experience anxiety too. Take a step back, think about your feelings and how you’ve been expressing these feelings.
Allow children to fully express their emotions
While you don’t want your child to feel anxious, you do want your child to fully express his or her emotions. Davies said you should encourage your child to name his or her fears or emotions, and then validate that it’s okay to feel that way. Don’t just say, “You’re going to be okay, and everything is going to be fine.”
Children may want to express their feelings through writing, drawing, talking or playing. Young children are more likely to play, and older kids are more likely to talk. As a parent, you know what will work best.
“You want your child to feel safe and loved, but you can’t avoid this. School is going to look different this year. You should speak to your child about that,” says Davies.
Focus on the present
Help your child focus on the present. Even school officials don’t know exactly how the school year will transpire. Thinking too far into the future isn't helpful. As a family, try to take it day by day, and keep an open mind. You can reassure your child that each day will get easier, as everyone gets the hang of the new routine.
Practice mindfulness exercises together
You can also practice mindfulness exercises with your child, encouraging him or her to stay positive and present in the moment. Maybe your family has a positive saying or quote that is important to you. Encourage your child to start each day by repeating this mantra to start the day in a good place.
Davies suggests that you encourage older children to record their feelings in a journal. Or have them draw their frustrations on a piece of paper and then throw the paper away. Help your child get negative feelings out, instead of letting bad thoughts fester.
Do relaxation exercises at home. Have your child breathe in while he or she counts to four and then breathe out while counting to four. Encourage your child to close his or her eyes, and count down from ten to one. Your child can use these exercises if feeling anxious at school.
Talk about what you can control
Talk to your child about what he or she can control. While you can’t control that you’re mostly staying home right now, you can let your child make some decisions. Plan what you’ll do for family night. Let your child choose a game to play, help with dinner or pick out a movie to watch. Your child may have to wear a mask to school, but they can pick a fun mask to wear. Help your child focus on the choices he or she can make.
Tell your child it’s okay to ask questions
Let your child know they can ask questions if they don’t understand or are feeling unsure. A child may have difficulty understanding what a classmate or teacher is saying because they are wearing a mask. Tell your child it’s okay to ask them to repeat it or to clarify what they mean. Or maybe your child doesn’t understand why he or she can’t sit by a friend at lunch. Encourage your child to ask a teacher or another school staff to explain when they’re having difficulty understanding new rules.
With all the uncertainty the school year presents, Davies stresses that parents should learn to be flexible and encourage your children to do the same.
“There is no guidebook. Your doctor or teachers don’t have the right answer. There is no right answer. Give yourself, school staff and your kid a lot of grace this year,” says Davies. “And know that you’re not alone in what you’re experiencing, and we’re all doing the best we can.”