As kids of all ages head back to the classroom, many need help preparing mentally and emotionally for the challenges of in-person learning, adjusting to new routines, and managing their COVID-19 anxiety—especially as the Delta variant adds new uncertainty, NYU Langone experts say.
“Thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine, people have been hopeful that life would go back to normal to a certain extent,” says Becky Lois, PhD, director of ambulatory integrated behavioral health at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone and co-director of the KiDS of NYU Foundation Integrated Behavioral Health Program, part of Sala Institute for Child and Family Centered Care. “But we’ve entered a new phase with the Delta variant, and unfortunately we’re starting the school year with a lot of anxiety about what the outcomes will be.”
Parents can help their children deal with anxiety by talking to them about their thoughts, fears, and concerns. It’s not always easy to get the conversation started, but asking open-ended questions can help. This can include “How do you feel about going back to school?” and “Is there anything specific you’re nervous about?”
If it’s tough getting them to talk, try asking questions specific to common concerns relating to school, such as making friends or keeping up with schoolwork. Younger children might feel more comfortable talking during an activity, such as coloring together, while teens might respond better to communication that is not face-to-face, such as while driving or by text message.
Dealing with the Uncertainty
Much of the anxiety and stress around COVID-19—for children and adults alike—is the shifting messages regarding how to stay safe. We started the summer with mask requirements being relaxed, and start the school year with mask mandates back in force. The virus was waning, and then it surged again. This makes it hard for children and teens to trust that this school year will be anything like what it was before the pandemic.
“If there is anything COVID-19 has taught us, it’s how quickly things can change,” says Katherine M. Ort, MD, co-director of the KiDS of NYU Foundation Integrated Behavioral Health Program and chief of service for child and adolescent psychiatry at Tisch Hospital and Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital. “These changing messages are really hard for people to manage.”
When talking to your child about what the school day will be like, Dr. Ort suggests answering as many questions as you can, and acknowledging that there is much we won’t know until school is actually back in session.
“Instead of only reassuring your child that everything will be OK, validate their concerns. Tell them, ‘Yes, it’s normal to feel worried, and I can’t guarantee that this school year will be easy, but we are doing everything we can to keep you safe and well,’” she says. “Remind your child of all the difficult challenges they’ve been through already, and that they have persevered. Tell them you know they are going through a lot, but you are really proud of them.”
Get Ready for New Routines
For younger children who either haven’t started school yet or spent a lot of time around caregivers during the pandemic, separation anxiety is to be expected. Ease your child into the idea of spending more time apart, such as setting up drop-off playdates or getting a babysitter. If possible, arrange for your child to meet their new teacher before the school year starts.
Older kids who haven’t had to set an alarm clock or change out of pajamas before class in a very long time might find the return to routines particularly jarring. To get used to an early wake-up time, you can slowly adjust sleep schedules before the start of school. Limit screen time before bed, as this will help make it easier to fall asleep.
Other ways to ease into a routine are doing a practice run for the morning routine and trip to school, to remind them of what needs to be done before heading out the door and what the commute to school is like. Picking out an outfit for the first day of school can help build excitement.
Don’t be surprised if your child is completely exhausted by going to school. It’s not just the schoolwork—it’s all the socializing and sensory stimulation. “Being in the classroom is great, but it’s also emotionally draining,” says Dr. Ort. “It can be hard for kids to keep it together emotionally for an entire day, and this may cause challenges when they return home. Listen to their frustrations, let them know their feelings are normal and expected, and that it will get easier with time. Try to have a special snack or activity waiting for them at home, as a reward for making it through the day, and be prepared for a period of adjustment.”
Prepare for Social Interaction
It’s likely that your child hasn’t shared a classroom, lunch hour, or recess with their classmates in some time. Activities that were once a normal part of the school day now can be anxiety-provoking, and your child might need to relearn some social skills.
“Arrange for playdates or outings with your child and a classmate before school starts,” says Dr. Lois. “Having just one friendly face when your child walks into their new classroom can make a huge difference.”
You can also try roleplaying at home. Ask your child what they would say when meeting someone new or participating in a group activity. For kids that went to school before the pandemic, ask them what they remember enjoying about school. Returning to sports, clubs, and after-school activities can be a good reminder that school isn’t all about studying and taking tests.
Children, especially teens, might also feel insecure about their appearance—their bodies likely changed a lot since they were last in the classroom. A shopping trip or a new haircut can provide small but helpful boosts to self-esteem.
“So much of this is about preparation,” says Dr. Lois. “Being social again isn’t like flipping a switch. We’re asking them to get out of the house, get engaged, establish a routine. Try to practice as much of this as you can before schools starts.”
Look for Signs of Significant Anxiety or Depression
There’s a difference between back-to-school jitters and anxiety that is putting a child’s mental health at risk, experts say.
“Depression and anxiety can manifest in different ways—depression can look like loss of enjoyment, not interacting with friends, not doing things they used to enjoy,” says Dr. Ort. “One symptom that is often overlooked is irritability, low frustration tolerance, and snapping quickly. This is often seen with younger kids, who can’t always explain what they are feeling.”
Both depression and anxiety can result in physical complaints as well, such as headache or stomachache. Other symptoms that point to severe anxiety and depression include changes in appetite; difficulty sleeping; neglecting personal hygiene, such as showering and getting dressed; and an inability to complete normal daily routines.
Some kids flat-out refuse to go to school, or participate in any social activities. If this is the case, you may need help from a specialist who can help support the return to school. Meeting teachers in advance and coming up with a game plan can also help, says Dr. Ort.
Children and teens have struggled tremendously throughout the pandemic, and that has resulted in an increase in eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide attempts. If you are concerned that your child is experiencing significant depression or anxiety contact your pediatrician who can provide an assessment and referral to a mental health provider, if needed. If you have urgent concerns about your child’s safety, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.
Address Your Own Anxiety
Given the ongoing pandemic and all the uncertainty, it is natural for parents and caregivers to feel anxious themselves about the start of the school year. Your child is a sponge for your emotions, and will look to you to know how to respond to situations they find overwhelming. Be honest with your child about your worries, but let them know that you are reassured by all of the safety protocols that are in place, including masks, distancing, testing, and vaccination for people 12 and older.
“Tell your child you know this year will be different, and it might feel overwhelming, but ‘I know you can do this,’” says Dr. Lois. “We’re going to work together to make this year great.”