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Seven Tips: Helping Children Overcome Anxieties About Returning to School

By Nora Dennis, MD MSPH | May 3, 2021 | 3 min read | Healthy Lifestyle, Coronavirus

Mom puts on young daughter's backpack, both of them wearing masks.

My eldest son is 11 years old. After months of home learning, he returned to the classroom last fall. The transition back to the classroom came earlier for our family than for most, but it was still marked by tremendous anxiety for my son. Being with peers isn’t always easy.

Many of us eagerly anticipate the moment when we can gather in groups again. We crave that vital sense of connection to our loved ones, to our peers and to our community. But that doesn’t mean reintegrating into social settings will be easy. It can be especially scary for children.

My son’s reluctance is not an isolated tale. Incidents of children refusing to return to group settings are on the rise. In particular, many parents have noted that their children with anxiety disorders were happier and more comfortable at home. While the pandemic has left most children feeling more stressed, we know that some children with social anxiety or OCD have actually been happier in social isolation.

But it’s not just children who are prone to anxiety who feel concerned. In a recent survey, 66% of school-aged children expressed hesitation about going back to school.

Young Learners Can Become Resilient

For both children and adults, routine is critical in times of chaos. In the midst of a deadly virus, many students settled into effective and reassuring new strategies that helped them make the most of remote learning. Now, the idea of returning to school might feel profoundly disruptive. Fluctuating between in-person and remote learning can be even more disorienting.

Returning to school is a stressor, but it’s important to know that not all stressors are bad for children. You can work with your child to help them become more resilient. In the long run, this will support their growth and promote academic and personal thriving.

Here are seven well-being strategies that can help your child take the reins:

1. Establish routines.

In those moments when life seems to spiral beyond our control, we can find strength by focusing on the things we can manage. Building predictable benchmarks into each day and throughout the week can help your child reclaim control.

2. Create rituals to help you reconnect with your child when the school day is over.

For example, encourage them to imagine their day as a rose. Ask them to describe the day’s bloom (something that was good), its thorn (something bad) and a bud (something to look forward to).

3. Maintain consistency around bedtime.

It’s critical that children “power down” every night at the same time and that they wake up at the same time, even on weekend mornings.

4. Share your positive outlook.

As a parent, express confidence in your child’s ability to succeed academically and socially at school. Talk positively about the benefits and relevance of education and the school community.

5. Use literature to open doorways to discussion.

Younger children are particularly responsive to fiction and poetry. Use storytelling time to reinforce the many positive aspects of school. Don’t know where to start? These resources can give you some good ideas for books to seek out at your local bookstore or library:

6. Recognize signs of anxiety.

Children’s anxiety may manifest as a stomachache, headache, or difficulty sleeping. If any one of these becomes a recurring issue, it could indicate that your child is feeling anxious. Remember that positive thinking is not the same thing as pretending that bad things never happen. Encourage your child to express their fears and frustrations. Share illuminating stories from your own childhood experiences in school. Be open and honest about what you learned from the challenges you faced as a student.

7. Ask for help.

Children may need additional support from a therapist if they face ongoing anxiety, social withdrawal, poor sleep and disinterest, or if they continue to demonstrate intense or physically resistant school refusal. Treatment planning often involves intentional exposure to stressors. As children work their way through these managed conflicts, they increase their tolerance for stress. This process interrupts the narrative that school is dangerous or that its challenges are impossible to overcome.

Embracing the Challenge Ahead: Excitement and Fear Can Walk Hand in Hand

As the vaccines take hold, many of us casually speak of a “return to normal,” but no one has a clear sense of what the post-COVID-19 world has in store for us. The normal we once knew is likely gone forever. So, while most of us want to be sociable once again, many of us are starting to recognize that excitement and fear can walk hand in hand.

Unpredictability and disruption are scary for adults. They can be doubly so for children. Don’t write off your child’s reluctance to return to school as “harmless butterflies” or routine acting out. Take the time to help them develop the confidence they need to feel positive about getting back into the classroom. Doing so will help ensure they get the most out of their school experience, both academically and socially. Those butterflies might just turn into bookworms!