How Has COVID-19 Affected Anxiety in Schoolchildren?
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.
Former elementary school counselor Rebecca Atkins is the co-author of “Interrupting Racism: Equity and Social Justice in School Counseling” and writes a blog called Counselor Up! She said schools will have to change gears, whether a particular school district plans to use fully remote learning or a hybrid system. “There’s going to be new rules and new expectations,” said Atkins.
“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:
- Not wanting to attend classes
- Stomach aches or other pains
- Aggression or outbursts
- Behavioral changes (e.g., sleeping more, eating less)
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 Return to anchor link
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.
- 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.
How Can Parents Cope With Back-to-School Anxiety? Return to anchor link
Parents have a great influence on their children.
“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.”
- 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? Return to anchor link
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.
- 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.
- Back-to-School Planning: Checklists to Guide Parents, Guardians and Caregivers, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: guidance for planning for in-classroom attendance, face masks and emotional well-being.
- Preparing K-12 School Administrators for a Safe Return to School in Fall 2020, CDC: guide to considerations for school officials, signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do if someone tests positive for it.
- Returning to School After an Emergency or Disaster: Tips to Help Your Students Cope, CDC: guide and activities for teachers.
- Trauma-Informed School Strategies During COVID-19, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (PDF, 777 KB): strategies and advice to use for responding to the physical and emotional needs of students, families and school staff during the pandemic.
- Free Online Resources, Amazing Educational Resources: worksheets, activities, information on apps and more for parents and teachers.
- Coronavirus Support Toolkits, Great Schools: worksheets, book lists, cue cards and more for K-12.
- Daily Schedule for School Closures, Khan Academy: templates for a typical day of learning for different grade levels.
- Scholastic Digital Solutions, Scholastic: online learning programs to help educators support students of all levels.
- Grab-and-Go Printable Packs for Back to School and Beyond, Scholastic: thematic packs to support teachers with lesson ideas and tips for pre-K-4th grade.
- “How to Foster a Positive School Climate in a Virtual World,” EdSurge, May 21, 2020: principles and strategies for positive remote learning.
- Learn at Home for Families, Scholastic: educational activities for ages 4-10, designed to boost their learning.
- Learning Hero Roadmap, Learning Heroes: tips for making learning at home fun and for keeping your child’s progress on track.
- Music Resources for School Closures, Little Kids Rock: video lessons series, including with no instruments required, and song-based lessons.
- National Geographic Learn at Home, National Geographic: collections of activities, videos, maps, infographics and more to use with K-12 students.
- Read Together, Be Together, Random House: book lists, reading tips, printable activities and author videos.
- Resources for Educators, Librarians, and Parents, Random House: discussion guides, activities and more available for free download.
- Springboard Family Resources, Springboard Collaborative: coaching plan, video workshops and registration for reminders and tips via text messages.
- Wide Open School, Common Sense: content for teachers and families for distance learning, virtual field trips, and more.
- Cox Connect2Compete, Cox Communication: information on company’s low-cost, home internet with Wi-Fi.
- EveryoneOn: features searchable database of affordable internet services and computers to help low-income families identify helpful places.
- Free and Low-Cost Internet Plans, National Digital Inclusion Alliance: list of Internet Service Providers that help low-income households to acquire service at low or no cost.
- “Free Wi-Fi for Online Learning During COVID-19,” The Journal by Infrastructure Solutions Group: list of services providing wireless options for students during the pandemic.
- Human-I-T: connecting low-income individuals to technology, internet services and training.
- Internet Essentials, Comcast: information on low-cost, high-speed internet and a learning center with tutorials for online education.
- PCs for People: organization that repurposes computers and other technology available at low cost for low-income users.
- Childcare Aware of America: child care information and resources by state.
- Feeding America: locator helps find food sources for families in need.
- Food Research and Action Center (FRAC): information on school meal programs and Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) for families who have lost access to free or reduced-price school meals.
- #HealthyAtHome–Healthy Parenting, World Health Organization: videos, stories, downloadable posters on healthy tips and an online educational trivia game.