It’s that time of year again when families start to prepare their children for the beginning of the new school year. From kindergarten to high school, some children are happily anticipating meeting a new teacher, seeing friends, and undertaking new learning. As a parent, you may have mixed feelings about your child returning to school. Likewise, your child might feel the same.
For some students, school can create some fear or anxiety as they think about the uncertainty of the approaching year. This is true, generally speaking, but the concerns of the pandemic can make matters worse.
Children may be overwhelmed with the school’s requirements for social distancing and being away from their preferred friends and peers, as well as expectations around cleanliness and wearing personal protective masks or other gear. They may feel stressed with the transition back to school after having adjusted to distance learning or feel a bit behind in their learning if they found distance education challenging. Shifts in routine can also be stressful as children are expected to stick to a schedule, start going to bed earlier, and initiate homework routines. All worsened by the potential for feeling unsafe at school and having fears of catching the virus and becoming sick.
As a result of all the emotions or stresses they are experiencing, children and teens may react in many ways depending on their age and stage of development:
Moodiness, anger, and irritability
Excessive worries, fears, or panic
Temper tantrums, throwing, hitting
Increased defiance or opposition
Easily feeling hurt and crying
Sadness or lack of interest
Withdrawal from friends and family and activities they usually enjoy
Increased need for affection or reassurance
Little motivation or concentration on schoolwork, or refusing to go to school
Headaches, muscle tension, upset stomach
Decreased energy, trouble sleeping, and appetite changes
Increased substance or medication use
Excessive worries and fears about the safety of self and others
Frequent talk about death or dying
Moving into the unknown can be scary, especially when some things seem out of our control. You are not alone. Many are trying to make the transition back as smooth as possible. So why does this happen for some students and not others?
Past experience can lead to some nervousness, but many children have the inherited trait of being cautious and worried in new situations. The brain might think that there’s some form of danger involved and may kick into the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This response is primarily about self-protection, so parents can do a lot of things to help children deal with worries about school. It may seem that the “tough approach” might be helpful, but in reality, it can actually make things worse.
It is important to recognize that the underlying anxiety and stress can impact behaviours, including socialization, and reduce a child’s ability to focus at school and learn. Helping children to cope with the “school jitters” and succeed in school involves patience, conversation, preparation, and understanding. How can parents help children when they worry about school?
“Back-to-school” means something dramatically different this fall but coping well with changes requires discussing them together as a family. We want to offer some tips and resources for parents and children to help alleviate some fears for your child as they begin the transition into a new school year.
Tips for Parents:
Have an open conversation about how the school year may be different as a result of the pandemic. Listen without judgement and be emotionally available for your child. Answer their questions as best as you can or assist them to problem solve and find answers or solutions on their own.
Facilitate age-appropriate opportunities for children to make choices, giving them a sense of safety and control they may have lost as a result of the pandemic. Work on solutions together. Try brainstorming as a family or a group, or one on one with your child. You’ll be surprised at the solutions kids imagine for solving their problems, ones that fit perfectly with their circumstances.
After school, ask the kids how things are going, but expect the usual “hmm ... fine.” To identify hidden worries, like bullying or socialization issues that are causing distress, use open-ended questions that can’t be answered with yes, no, or fine.
Encourage your child to share their thoughts and feelings, including their worries and fears. Respect your child’s worries, even if you believe they are irrational. Reassure your child that many students get nervous before the year begins. Focus on what they did well in the past; how they may have dealt with attending a new school, or made a new friend, or had an incredible teacher.
Encourage positive self-talk in your child. Even when kids are anxious or worried, they can use internal talk such as:
“It’s okay to be scared,” or “I’ll get through this.”
“Everyone has a bit of nervousness in this class.”
“I was nervous last year, but it went away once I got to school.”
You may want to visit the school before classes start if pandemic restrictions allow it. Schools are often open several days early as teachers and staff begin to prepare for classes. See if you can tour the school, find the child’s classroom, and meet some of the staff. By spending a few minutes at the school, the child is able to envision what his first day will look like. For older students, you may want to get a class schedule and locate the room where each class is to be held.
Look up the school’s website and read through this information together. Read the school’s handbook with your child and discuss the expectations for social distancing, wearing masks, dress code, homework, and other school guidelines.
Practice walking to school together or walking to the bus stop. Connect with another neighbourhood child and walk to school or play on the school playground to build comfort with this process again.
Establish school schedules and routines now. Encourage an earlier bedtime routine and focus on getting up earlier in the morning. Quiet reading time and identifying quiet study spaces can also be important as this initiates the need to build in some reading and study times. Put time limits on electronic devices.
Make a list of school supplies and personal protective equipment they may need including hand sanitizer, masks, and technology such as a USB drive or computer software.
Have a calendar displayed in a prominent place in your home and begin to put in important dates and events. This assists your child in learning how to manage a daytimer.
Do a refresher with children to go over learning and materials from the previous year, and identify any gaps in learning. Help them to identify any additional learning resources available to them, such as guidance counsellors, tutors, or student learning centres. Encourage your child to ask for help if they get “stuck,” which means speaking to parents, their teacher, or even other children.
If your child is experiencing some school-based anxiety, the above tips can help you to alleviate some of your child’s fears. This builds a foundation for creating courage and confidence in your child and will give children some lifelong tools for adapting to new situations.
Tips for Students:
Starting a new school year is exciting but comes with the first day back to school worries and jitters. It is a little scary even at the best of times but managing back-to-school stress during coronavirus is something completely new.
Allow yourself time to feel nervous. It is normal to have some fear or worry about the unknown or worry you may get sick. The unknown can feel scary and our brain is wired to protect us from potential dangers. This protection factor can impact our thoughts, our moods, and our behaviours. Being prepared to face potential challenges and setbacks is the first step to rise to the challenge. Change is scary, but it is also an opportunity to challenge yourself and grow.
The following tips will help you to get ahead by building skills and new learning to manage those fears and worries.
Facing our Emotions
Know that is it okay to have feelings and give yourself time to feel and express those emotions in a way that is helpful or comfortable to you. This may mean writing a journal or expressing emotion through art, sports, or other activities that help you feel safe and secure.
Don’t get caught up in the worst-case scenarios, trying to predict the future and plan for every possible situation. It can be easy to get caught up in our planning and obsess over how we will manage difficult situations. This can feed stress and worry and can make things worse. Trust that your school has plans in place and ask for help if you need it.
Have some courage despite your worry or fear for the future. It normal to experience fears of the unknown. Having courage means deciding not to let fear control your actions and stop you from taking chances in life. It means using your knowledge and resources to assist you to deal with your fears and make plans to keep moving forward through the tough times.
No one can’t predict the future or control all situations, but you can control how you respond and how you act. Negative or worry thoughts are normal. Acknowledge those feelings without being hard on yourself and take the opportunity to change them into positives or opportunities. Times of challenge are chances to build close relationships with friends or family, and telling yourself “I am scared, but I will get through this” are some examples of changing the way we look at situations.
Actions you can take
Talk to people that you are comfortable with and feel you can trust. Having someone to share your feelings and worries with, without shame or blame, is really important. These may be friends, teachers, coaches, or a guidance counsellor. The school may have additional resources or supports for helping students adjust to the new practices and changes as a result of the pandemic.
Adapting to the uncertainty of the future requires flexibility and an open mind. As we learn more about the virus and the impact it has on the school year, the response or actions that we take may need to change. Schools may bring back more distance learning, or you may experience other changes that you are expected to follow. Remember that change is going to happen and that you are still able to meet the challenge and be successful.
Take some time to prepare for the changes that you will face this year. Read materials that your school or teacher shares about their plan to keep you safe. Know what will be expected of you, and what you can expect from others as well. If everyone is prepared and on the same page it helps to keep everyone safe and reduces stress.
Have kindness for yourself and others. We are experiencing challenging and unique times and it is likely that everyone is feeling or hurting from it. If you are finding that you or others are on edge, angry, or irritable, it isn’t personal. Take the opportunity to talk it through, apologize, and forgive one another for these emotional or negative reactions. We are all learning as we go.
It is normal to experience worry or fear as you enter the new school year, but it is helpful to embrace it with a plan and an open mind. Whether you are returning to the classroom, doing school from home, or some combination in between, the experience will be new and different.
Take the time to care for yourself and keep an eye on how you are feeling. Lean on social supports when needed, stick to a routine, and maintain healthy sleep, eating, and exercise patterns to keep yourself feeling well. Make time for enjoyable activities but be sure to follow the health guidelines and keep yourself safe while doing them.
At the end of the day, we are all in this together. We are all experiencing challenges as a result of the pandemic, and we don’t know what others are going through. Take the time to reach out to others and be sensitive to their experiences and their feelings. We are all trying to protect ourselves, worrying for our families, our classmates, teachers, and friends, and still live a normal life as best as we can. Social distancing and missing important milestones in life can feel lonely and upsetting, but positivity and gratitude are contagious, and you are not alone.
Tips for Helping Other Students
Use the five golden rules from jack.org to help you navigate a difficult conversation with someone you think may be struggling.
Say what you see – describe the changes you’ve noticed in their behaviour without making judgements or assumptions. Stick to the facts. “You’ve missed class the last couple days. Is everything okay?”
Be there for others and show that you care. You don’t always have to have the answer or the perfect response. Sometimes just knowing someone is there and willing to listen can be enough.
Hear them out and be a good listener. Find a good balance between asking questions to understand their perspective and listening to their feelings and responses.
Know your role is to listen and set boundaries to protect your own mental health and your relationship. You don’t need to be the person’s therapist or fix their situation, but you can encourage them to talk to a professional.
Connect them to resources that can help them continue their healing process. You can’t force someone to go and seek help, but you can provide them with information about where they can go and what they might expect if they reach out.
For much more detail and video examples, visit jack.org for more information. https://bethere.org/Say-What-You-See
Additional Resources -
https://smho-smso.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Supporting-Mental-Health-and-Wellness-during-the-Return-to-School-Tip-Sheet-EN.pdf - tip sheet - supporting student mental health
https://smho-smso.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/EDMH-ParentActivities-FINAL-EN.pdf - activities of socio-emotional learning to support a young child’s mental health
https://www.anxietycanada.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/CARD-for-Parents-and-Caregivers.pdf - the C.A.R.D game for parents/caregivers (Comfort, Ask, Relax, Distract)
https://www.familycentre.org/public/download/files/136272 - addressing mask aversion in 2 weeks
https://www.amazon.ca/Cant-MASK-Our-Excitement-understand/dp/B08FP7QC1R/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=we%20cant%20mask%20our%20excitement&qid=1597537453&sr=8-1&fbclid=IwAR3RZ06KZqhLFrMABa2-iebiUKJPYz6u7f7emFqVuBxeKKWCQBb7pYQuUyU - book – Going back to school amidst a pandemic
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxqcYOAg9RU&feature=youtu.be - video – avoiding the long term impact of COVID-19
https://www.familycentre.org/public/download/files/136269 - an activity to get ready for school
https://kidshelpphone.ca/get-info/my-back-to-school-checklist-during-covid-19/ - back to school checklist
https://smho-smso.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Self-Care-101.pdf - how to take care of yourself
https://jack.org/covid - resources for children/youth mental health, including relaxation exercises
https://kidshelpphone.ca/get-info/12-instant-stress-busters/ - stressbusters
https://kidshelpphone.ca/get-info/taking-care-of-yourself-while-sharing-space-during-covid-19/ - sharing space during social distancing
https://smho-smso.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Reaching-Out.pdf – tips on how to ask for help
https://maps.anxietycanada.com/courses/child-map/ - self-help course using CBT for children/youth with mild to moderate anxiety