How Has COVID-19 Affected Anxiety in Schoolchildren?
August 25, 2020
Back-to-school anxiety is not so unusual.
“Normally, kids are really excited,” said Laura Jones, an elementary school counselor in Frederick County, Maryland. “Yes, there’s some anxiety, but a lot of it’s good anxiety. They missed their friends over the summer. They’re excited to meet their new teacher and to be part of that class, that community once again.”
But life is unusual during a pandemic, which has increased back-to-school anxiety in children and adults. Depending on their circumstances, that good anxiety, that excitement, may not happen for all students this year.
“Uncertainties can bring anxiety and ratchet it up to the next level,” said Jones, who also is president of the Maryland School Counselors Association.
Adults should avoid adding to children’s anxiety about school. When parents, caregivers and teachers express negative emotions, such as anger and frustration, that can affect kids.
“It’s so important for parents and educators to stay positive so that our kids and students can be positive as well,“ said Alisha Kowsky, a lower school counselor in the Charleston, S.C., area.
“The more we talk about [our frustrations] in front of them, the more we share our personal opinions, the more we might affect them in their anxiety,” Kowsky said. “Not that we shouldn’t share what’s going on. We should do so in an appropriate way where we’re talking to our kids, not where they’re hearing us voice different opinions.”
“It’s so important for parents and educators to stay positive so that our kids and students can be positive as well.”
All adults—parents, teachers, school counselors and school administrators—want what is best for children so compassion is critical because a pandemic changes everything. Everyone is juggling different scenarios.
“Just be prepared knowing that everybody’s going to be in a different space, and then, nobody is in the same space they were,” said Atkins, who now works in the central office of a large North Carolina school district supporting other school counselors.
Learning from home has had its advantages for some students. Children who have some social anxiety and have become used to communicating via messages and chats might be more nervous about the prospect of returning to a classroom setting, Atkins said.
What Are Signs of Back-to-School Anxiety?
Whether it’s related to moving to a new school or missing an older sibling who’s graduated, “anxiety looks similar regardless of the source,” Atkins said.
School counselors describe what to look for in children:
If a child’s anxiety prevents them from functioning, it is time to get help from professional counselors. “Anxiety is a natural part of life,” Atkins said, “and so when it becomes something that is impeding your natural life, that you can no longer be that participating student, or a part of the family dynamic, that’s when you might seek some additional help.”
How to Help Children Cope With Back-to-School Anxiety
Parents should learn when and how to help a child with anxiety about school.
“It’s fine for your child to be nervous, that’s normal,” Atkins said. “It’s fine for your child to have questions about how things are going to go. You can help them by being proactive with that information.”
The very basic way to get the conversation started is to ask children how they are feeling about going back to school. When school starts, ask them about their first day.
Adults can help children cope with back-to-school anxiety by doing these things:
Communicate openly and honestly. Encourage children to express themselves and their fears so adults know what is going on and whether their anxiety is escalating.
Teach them mindfulness exercises. Use methods such as “Five Fingers” or the “5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique.” Ask children to identify: 5 things they can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can touch, 2 things they can smell, 1 thing they can taste.
Urge them to focus on their breathing. Use the act of breathing as a mindfulness exercise where the child focuses on the action itself to raise awareness of their body’s movements and physical feelings.
Acknowledge the child’s emotions and help them strategize. Tell children that you understand they are afraid, frustrated or angry and work with them to devise a plan to use a mindfulness exercise or other distractions to help.
Parents do need to be cautious about overreacting, Atkins warns. “We’re very uncomfortable with negative feelings.” Children need to learn to process negative feelings and move on. By doing so, they learn that they don’t have to let smaller problems affect them so dramatically. “So, allow some feelings, but be there as a support,” she said.
“If we are anxious and overwhelmed and negative, then they’re going to feed off of that,” Kowsky said. “I’m not saying to hide our feelings, but I think that there is a certain amount that we can say to our children without influencing or allowing them to feed off of our feelings.”
Here are things that parents can do to cope with back-to-school anxiety:
Manage your own anxiety. Use calming mindfulness or deep-breathing exercises.
Know when to shut off news feeds. Avoid information overload that can be stressful.
Ask questions of school staff. Learn all you can from the school to avoid surprises.
Set work boundaries. Try to prevent work from affecting family and personal time.
Acknowledge everyone’s feelings. Discuss what you and your children are feeling.
How Can School Staff Cope With Back-to-School Anxiety?
Back-to-school anxiety exists for teachers, counselors and other staff, too. Being able to take the time to re-establish supportive connections is important, Atkins said. They are all dealing with the same back-to-school situation.
Here are things that teachers, counselors and other school staff can do to cope with back-to-school anxiety:
Practice self-care. Set aside time for long walks, reading and other activities.
Follow safety guidelines. To be comfortable in your environment, take precautions.
Keep up with developments. Attend seminars and join group chats to stay informed.
Reach out. Socialize with colleagues over coffee or during lunch at a distance or online.
Make your circle count. Be selective, making sure that connections are helpful.
Children will be able to relate when they see adults dealing with their own anxiety at home and in school.
“We have to be that model for our kids,” Jones said.
Whether children are returning to school in a traditional classroom, online or a hybrid situation, there are resources available to help ease the back-to-school anxieties they feel as well as those that their parents and school staff might be feeling.