How to Handle Back to School Anxiety as Schools Reopen

June 11, 2020 Published by

Many parents are now or will soon be faced with the decision on whether to send their child back to school – whether that’s for a few weeks before the summer or at the start of the new academic year in September. For some parents it will be an easy choice to make, for others it will be a little more complex. 

It’s important that we all respect that every family situation will be unique and we are all making the choices that are right for us. If you do decide not to send your child back to school yet, current guidance suggests that you will not face fines for non-attendance.

If you are sending your child back to school, they may be feeling anxious about it. It’s common to experience back to school anxiety after a long break, such as the summer holidays, but they may also be apprehensive about the changes in response to Covid-19.

 

Back-to-School-Anxiety-Good-Play-Guide-KM

Possible Causes of Back to School Anxiety During Covid-19

When returning to school, your child might experience separation anxiety – as their parent, you may also have similar fears of being apart for long periods of time. You have all spent a large amount of time together for over two months, so it may take some time for everyone to adjust.

It may also be the first time your child has seen their friends for a long time. They may be sad that they can’t hug each other when they are reunited, or may be worried about whether they are still ‘in’ with their group of friends, particularly if some have been in contact more or less than others. Your child might also miss the friends that aren’t in their class ‘bubble’ or haven’t returned to school at the same time.

Rumours and disagreements may also begin to fly in the playground. It’s likely that children have heard and understood different information about Covid-19 and the lockdown and they may begin to share this with one another. This may lead to more anxiety or arguments with friends; for example, if one child says they have been ignoring the lockdown rules to visit family, another may be upset by this because they have been told this isn’t allowed. As a result, your child may come home with new questions and information that you will need to discuss with him or her.

It’s possible that your child will come to you with a lot of “what if” questions and answering these as best you can, in an age appropriate way, will help to comfort them. For example, they may want to know what will happen if there is a case at their school, and you can explain that the person will be asked to self isolate and the school may be closed temporarily for deep cleaning. Or, your child may be worried that because of the 2m rule, a member of staff can’t help if he or she falls over in the playground; but you can reassure your child that they will be looked after if this happens, although the adult may be wearing gloves and a mask to help protect them. 

“If they are interested enough to ask questions, children deserve our time and our best attempt at answering them, but do it slowly and don’t give too much information at one time.”  – Dr Amanda Gummer

A good rule of thumb is to let your child lead the conversation and clarify what their question is before answering, to avoid misunderstanding and overloading them with information they aren’t looking for.

 

What Might the New School Day Look Like as Schools Reopen?

There will be a few new rules and routines for children to get their heads around when they go back to school too. Giving your child an idea of what these may be beforehand can give him or her the chance to process their thoughts and feelings around them and ask any questions.

Pupils at a primary school in Birmingham have made a lovely video explaining the changes in their school you may like to show your child. The changes may vary slightly from school to school, but here is a list of some of the new rules and routines your child may come across:

  1. Arrival and attendance
  • Intermittent home learning – pupils may attend part-time, with smaller class groups taking turns to be in school
  • Queuing 2m apart at the school gates
  • Parents and carers may not be allowed in the school building to drop off/collect, or to talk to teachers (you may instead be asked to call or email to limit face-to-face contact)

2. School-wide

3. In the classroom

  • Smaller class groups – this is expected to be up to 15 pupils
  • New classroom layouts with one pupil per desk, spread 2m apart
  • More use of outdoor spaces
  • Classroom windows and doors may be open to let in fresh air
  • Children may not be allowed to bring in their own pencil cases/stationery, instead the school may provide equipment for individual pupils that is kept in the school
  • Pupils may be asked to clean the equipment they use, e.g. tablet device screens
  • Children may not be allowed to bring in items considered non-essentials, such as toys

4. Break times

  • Staggered break and lunch times, with different start and finish times for each class
  • Eating lunch in the classrooms
  • Keeping 2m apart where possible – although expected that this may not always be possible, particularly with young children
  • Socially-distanced play, possibly only with classmates in ‘class bubbles’

 

Signs of Anxiety to Look Out For

Some levels of anxiety are to be expected during an unusual time like this. Your child might not necessarily understand that they are feeling anxious, but there are a few signs of anxiety you can look out for:

  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Not sleeping, or waking in the night with bad dreams
  • Not eating properly
  • Quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts
  • Constantly worrying or having negative thoughts
  • Feeling tense and fidgety, or using the toilet often
  • Always crying
  • Being clingy
  • Complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell

If these symptoms don’t go away or are getting worse, you may want to speak to your GP.

Separation anxiety image

Three Tips to Handle Back to School Anxiety

To help handle anxiety as schools reopen you can use the same techniques as you usually would when your child is anxious about starting a new school, or going back to school after a long break.

1Talk to your child about his or her anxieties about going back to school.

Allow plenty of time and opportunities for your child to talk about his or her concerns and ask questions. Actively listen to fears or worries and acknowledge them, so your child knows that his or her feelings matter and you are always there to lend an ear.

When doing so, try to avoid sharing your own anxieties about your child’s return to school. Seeing you being calm and confident can help your child feel more calm and confident themselves.

If your child comes to you with problems, rather than saying “there’s nothing to worry about”, it can be more practical to come up with some solutions together. For example, if your child is worried about not being able to hug his or her friends, what can they do instead? Can they come up with a funny alternative greeting, such as the Vulcan salute from Star Trek?

You may also want to encourage your child to talk about the things he or she is looking forward to, such as seeing their friends and their teacher again, or doing their favourite classes – this can help them think more positively about the experience.

You could discuss the questions that your child’s teacher and friends may ask when they go back to school, so he or she is prepared, rather than having to think of an answer on the spot. For example, your child might be asked what he or she has been doing during lockdown, how they feel about it, or whether they know anyone who has had it.

2. Help familiarise your child with the new routine.

Your child may feel more separate from their teacher and friends after being away from them for so long. Hopefully your child has been in contact with them during the school closures but if not, encourage him or her to connect in some way before the return to school. This could be a video call with their friendship group, or have them write a letter to their teacher. You could also tell your child that their teacher has called to say they look forward to seeing him or her again, even if it’s a white lie!

Many of us have got out of regular routines, perhaps with later bedtimes and mealtimes (and lots of snacks in between?). If possible, start to readjust your day back to the ‘schooltime’ routine at least a week before, moving everything by a few minutes or so each day so the new routine isn’t such a drastic change.

Consider practising the trip to and from school a few days before too. This may help your child feel more comfortable about going outside again, if they haven’t been out much during lockdown, as well as encouraging them to get back into that routine.

3. Give your child tools to handle back to school anxiety.

Mindfulness techniques can be very useful for managing anxious thoughts and feelings. For example, you could teach your child Square Breathing: breathe in for a count of four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four – as long as needed to calm down. Learning methods like this means your child can scope with their emotions even when they are alone.

If your child perhaps struggles to talk about their thoughts and feelings, you can also make a worry jar or use a Worry Eater. Your child simply writes or draws his or her worry on a piece of paper and pops it into the worry jar, or the mouth of the Worry Eater to gobble up. Your child then feels as if they have ‘released’ their worry; but you can also read the worry, get to the root of their anxiety, and try to help fix it. 

Another technique you could consider is play therapy. Children don’t always have the words they need to describe their feelings and sometimes these can be misinterpreted by adults too. Play is a pressure-free way to explore their anxieties and means you can put words and solutions to their worries. You could ask your child to draw a picture or write a story about how their first day back at school might go; use pretend play to act out a day at school; or talk through the school day and have them play music to reflect how they might be feeling at that point in the day.

back-to-school

Summary

These three tips to handle back to school anxiety can be used as preventative measures, before you see any signs of anxiety in your child. It may take some time for your child to adjust but with your support he or she will be able to handle any back to school anxieties.

By talking to your child about their worries and the new school environment, rehearing the new routine, and giving your child the tools to process and communicate their emotions, you can turn this experience into a learning opportunity – helping to build his or her resilience for the future.

How are you helping your child handle back to school anxiety as their school reopens? Let us know @GoodPlayGuide on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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This post was written by Kerstie Mehmel

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