Moving Forward In 2021: Back To School

By Bridget Nolan, MA, LLP, LPC

The beginning of a new school year can be very exciting, but it can also be a time of heightened stress and anxiety for parents and children alike.  I’ve had numerous conversations in the past few weeks with fellow parents, students, educators, and administrators regarding their feelings about going back to school; and the emotions range from excitement, to fear, to everything in between.  Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, many of our children have been out of traditional classroom environments for much longer than the average summer break.  Some students have been out of in-person school since March 2020. This is the biggest factor that makes back-to-school this year so unique.  This year especially, going back to school will look different than it ever has, and will likely be full of mixed emotions.

There are a variety of reasons that someone may experience stress and anxiety associated with going back to school.  In this post, I will outline what caregivers can do to help ease back-to-school anxiety, what behaviors to watch for that might indicate a need for further intervention, and practical steps (attitude, routine, etc.) that can help make the back-to-school transition less stressful.

One of the most beneficial actions caregivers can take is to create a space for children to talk openly about all of their feelings, both positive and negative.  Normalizing that range of emotions will help children feel safe expressing their thoughts and concerns.  Talking honestly about feelings such as worry, anger, and sadness can help them to know they are not alone, and their feelings are valid.  Sometimes problem-solving advice is not even necessary; just a compassionate and listening ear can make a huge difference for easing worries and fears.  Equally important is not dismissing concerns by making comments such as “you don’t have anything to worry about” or “everyone will want to be your friend.”  Instead, find a way to validate children’s emotions in a meaningful way, by making comments such as “I know this must feel very hard for you.” Demonstrate your confidence in their ability to adapt and handle difficult situations by making statements such as “you are not alone; we will work through this together.”

Children might exhibit a shift in behaviors which may indicate struggles with stress, worry, fear or anxiety.  Some examples include: changes in sleep or eating patterns, restlessness or increased fidgeting, complaints of physical symptoms such as stomach or headaches (despite the absence of physical illness), increased clinginess or difficulty separating from adults/caregivers, increased anger and quicker agitation, unexplained episodes of tearfulness or crying, and difficulty concentrating.  If you observe behavioral changes that persist beyond the first 2-3 weeks of school, and if these behaviors interfere with daily life, it may be a good idea to reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional for more guidance.

Attitude is another essential concept to focus on for managing (and reducing) stress and anxiety. Children tend to be very perceptive, and their attitudes can often mirror our own attitudes.  It is critical, especially this year, to have a positive attitude about the year ahead.  There may be many changes that occur this upcoming year, and if we can approach them with a positive attitude, it is more likely that our children will also approach these situations with a positive attitude.  Talk to children about focusing their efforts on the things that they can control versus the things they cannot.  Examples of what we can control include: routines, preparedness, attitude, kindness, etc.  Examples of what we might be able to influence but likely cannot control include: length of a school day, whether or not schools implement mask mandates, other people’s choices, etc.

Lastly, another way to help ease stress and anxiety (for everyone involved) is to get your home ready for the back-to-school transition.  Create a routine, plan ahead, and get your child involved with this process.  Encourage your child to assist with packing lunches the night before and laying out clothing options.  This will help children to feel more in control, helpful, and productive. The countdown to back-to-school begins now!

As a limited licensed psychologist, I have continued to see that a large majority of people still have concerns about changes and stressors related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  Even as our world continues to “open up” and “return to normal,” we know that our lives have been forever changed by the challenges we have all experienced over the past year and a half.  Some of these challenges have brought about positive life changes, while others have been devastatingly difficult.

In the meantime, enjoy the remaining days of summer sunshine and making memories with your friends and family.  Move forward with kindness, knowing each person you encounter is fighting a battle you know nothing about.  I wish you all a healthy and successful back-to-school transition.

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