Managing Anxiety Going Back to School: A Guide for Parents, Teachers, and Students

Sep. 7, 2021
A confident, collective effort can make the experience rewarding for everyone

After 18 months of disruption, a majority of children in America will be returning to full-time school for the first time since March of 2020.

A lot of parents, teachers, kids and administrators are understandably excited, cautious, and - with the Delta wave still active in the US - anxious.  Will schools be safe? How should parents, students, and teachers manage their anxiety and excitement? And what environment should they expect in the first few months upon returning?

Our child psychology and school administration experts share advice for parents:

1. For parents, project confidence to your kids

If your kids followed hybrid or remote learning last year, it’s normal to be concerned about their safety returning to the classroom. As they return to full-time, in-person learning, you need to demonstrate your support and confidence to your children, according to Melissa Heatly, PhD, at Golisano Children’s Hospital.

“You can go back-and-forth in your head, and you can discuss anxieties with your spouse or partner, but try to shelter your kids from your anxiety, because if you are communicating fear, your kid will feel it as well.”

If your child is anxious, it could manifest itself in three ways:

Fight -- they could be argumentative or combative about returning to school;

Flight --  you could be seeing separation anxiety, or they may be digging their heels about getting on the bus or car to go to school; or

Freeze --  be on the lookout for indifference or lack of interest in school, which will likely be detrimental to their performance and experience.

If your child is showing any of these signs, give them the space and time to express their thoughts. Ask them how they’re feeling, and provide assurance that they have the strength to handle things that are stressful.

For younger kids, consider sending them to a school with a coping kit with their favorite pictures or puzzles, and/or food items with familiar flavors and aromas. 

Also, be cautious and moderate with your COVID anxiety – no matter where you stand – because kids could bring these anxieties into school and negatively affect the environment. “School can’t be a place that is polarized based on what an individual believes and doesn’t believe based on COVID,” said Shaun Nelms, Ed.D, superintendent of Rochester’s East Upper and Lower schools. “Schools serve as a hub for healing, and while we have to acknowledge that kids come to school with an array of thoughts and feelings on any given topic, we have to buffer them from issues that don’t allow them to have a quality education.”

2. Make school return a positive, collective mission

For the families that are more cautious, it’s important to focus on positive activities and safety routines as a group to move forward successfully. “Not all stress and struggle is bad stress and struggle,” said Heatly. Working together on regular activities like hand washing and mask wearing are a few ways children and parents can cope with stress in a positive way.

“When you have an opportunity to be in stressful environments and manage it, you can gain skills that can last you a lifetime and allow you to be with your friends,” said Heatly.

That last part is important. While many families became more resilient last year adjusting to remote schooling, in-person schooling is critical for kids to develop social skills and improve their long-term behavioral health. “Remote learning likely provides the safest environment for kids, but the downside is that they’re missing out on social interaction and an opportunity to be part of a larger community of people, and to gain knowledge and experiences,” said Heatly.

When kids are back in school, however, and you’ve noticed a negative shift in mood that’s lasted more than two weeks, talk with your pediatrician.

3. Teachers, staff, and students can benefit from supporting each other

Going back to school helps re-establish student-adult mentorships. Research has shown that these mentorships produce positive mental health outcomes for students.

This is why – during these uncertain times – teachers and staff can help students’ adjustment period by showing their appreciation. “Teachers mean far more to students than they may be aware of,” said Heatly. “Even saying simple things like ‘I am so glad that you are here today’ or ‘I really appreciated your comment during class’ could be critical for helping students feel welcome and safe.”

Teachers and staff who are connected with their students are also better positioned to recognize problems at home. “We have to make sure that students are aware of our ability to advocate for them outside of school,” said Nelms, “for those students who haven’t been as connected during the pandemic, we are going to be extremely attentive to them and help them as they transition back.”

The school community should be aware that teachers and staff are also transitioning back after a long absence as well, and to recognize and support their efforts. “The same confidence and resilience that we foster in kids, we want to help provide for educators as well,” said Heatly. “We have to approach this as an opportunity for educators to come together as a community under a shared mission and values.”

4. Be alert for signs of substance abuse

Getting kids back into schools brings back familiar challenges, including substance abuse. After a decline during remote schooling, those behaviors can return, according to Leah Hill, clinical engagement specialist at UR Medicines’s Strong Recovery program.

“The harder substances kids would get through school were no longer available last year, and even if kids were getting together with friends, the flow of product was interrupted,” said Hill. “With school going back, especially around October and November, we anticipate more kids coming in for substance abuse problems.”

While kids have been more shielded from the peer-pressure dynamics that typically fuel substance abuse, the added anxieties of the pandemic and general state of the world could be a compounding factor in heightening risk as students return, according to Hill.

During the next few months, Hill encourages parents to monitor warning signs of substance abuse: falling grades, different friend groups or not as many friends, over-secrecy, and sudden weight gain or weight loss. Trust your intuition if you think something is wrong and give your child space when addressing the problem.

“If your kid is using drugs, and they don’t feel safe talking to you, they’re going dig their heels in. Safety, trust and love is going to be the answer in approaching them,” said Hill. “If you communicate to them ‘you can come to me, I won’t be mad,’ that’s going to be an easy way to keep a door open."

And partner with your child’s schoolteacher or counselor in addressing the problem. “There can’t be adjustments made if it’s not brought to their attention,” said Hill. “If it’s got to your kid, it’s probably being brought to other kids.”

5. Ensure a fun environment

Fun activities make school special for a lot of kids. Clubs, sports, bands, and other non-classroom activities are vital for your kid’s social-emotional development, and can be the primary reason kids want to go to school. “As much as we can do to keep that rich school culture alive in a safe manner, we need it,” said Heatly.

Even if you are nervous, encourage your kids to join clubs and activities that will help them stretch and grow.  Safety protocols will continue in all of these extracurricular activities. 

“These activities provide kids a sense of modified normalcy as we re-open, and we want to create an environment as normal as it was prior to COVID, because kids like to socialize,” echoed Nelms.