Helping Children Cope with Anxiety About the Return to In-person Learning

Girl, mother leaving school, wearing face masks

The start of this school year will look different for millions of kids across the country. Last fall, the back-to-school season was dominated by talk of remote learning, cohorts, hybrid learning, and homeschooling.

This year, for the most part, schools are returning to a more traditional in-person learning model. And while this may be exciting for some parents and children, it can also be a source of anxiety for children who have not experienced in-person learning for over a year. This is a big change, and with it may come big emotions.

What to Expect

As kids head back to in-person school, parents and caregivers should expect some degree of uncertainty, anxiety, and worry in both themselves and their children. Remember, this is normal!

A return to a more traditional social life can be stressful. While socialization and peers are important for kids, and many are excited to be returning to in-person learning, many may feel “out of practice” or behind in their ability to navigate friendships and other social relationships.

Due to interrupted and inconsistent schedules last year, your child may struggle academically and feel like they are “behind.” Last year was an unprecedented year filled with ups and downs. While some students may have excelled at online learning, most kids found online learning to be more challenging. They may not have retained as much as they would in a traditional classroom setting.

Reassure your child that the pandemic was a challenge for everyone (parents, students, teachers, and schools) last year, and that the pace of learning was the not the same for most kids. Teachers and administrators expect there to be some bumps along the way as children transition back into full in-person learning. Schools should be prepared with counselors and staff that are trained to support a wide range of mental health needs.

Concerns About Getting COVID-19

Kids may also be concerned about getting COVID-19 in school. With the rise of the Delta variant, more kids are getting COVID-19, so your child may be worried. As always, validate your child’s concerns and really listen to what they are saying. Encourage your child to focus on what you can control and reinforce prevention strategies such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing. It also helps to encourage positive thinking. If you have a child 12 or older, make sure to get them vaccinated. Every vaccinated family member adds another layer of protection for your younger children who cannot get vaccinated yet.

Special Considerations for Racial and Ethnic Minority Families

In addition to the anxieties mentioned above, racial and ethnic minority families may have additional concerns surrounding the return to in-person learning. Racial and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and there may be increased anxiety surrounding the risk of returning to in-person school and community transmission. There also may be a distrust of school systems that have failed them in the past.

Some students of color thrived in an online environment due to a decrease in in-person bullying, microaggressions, racism, or disciplinary targeting. They may have felt safer both physically and psychologically at home.

Separation Anxiety in Young Children

Parents/caregivers may see separation anxiety and attachment issues in young children who have become accustomed to having their caregivers nearby at all times. This is a result of children missing the opportunity to develop confidence around being away from their parent/caregiver. Be patient and check out these tips, which can help you navigate this new territory.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

The number one thing to remember is that it is normal for your child to be anxious about returning to in-person schooling after a time away. Children (and adults!) get anxious when facing uncertainty or unfamiliarity. That doesn’t mean your child will fail or have a bad outcome. It just means that they haven’t developed or redeveloped confidence to face the new situation.

Your child’s anxiety will subside and their confidence will grow when they are exposed to what they’re afraid of in a safe way. Remember, it’s still going to feel a bit distressing for your child, but you can help them get through stressful times by providing safety and support.

How to Support Your Child

While every child is different (and has different needs), as your child returns to in-person school and activities, it’s helpful to:

  • Ask how your child is doing. And really listen to what they are saying. Don’t assume you know what they are feeling. For example, maybe we think they should be excited, but they are really afraid. We have to hold space for honest answers.
  • Offer encouragement, safety, and unconditional love and support. Don’t underestimate the importance of really being there for your child.
  • Be honest with your child about your own anxiety. It’s helpful for kids to see that their anxiety is normal and that adults feel it too. You can share the healthy coping techniques that help you manage your anxiety.
  • Encourage your child to talk to their friends and classmates about what they’re feeling. They’ll likely be reassured to find out they’re not the only one feeling anxious.
  • Keep the lines of communication open with your child’s teacher/school. Discuss safety and emotional support with your child’s school to understand what plans, resources, and staff are available. In addition, having a dialogue with your child’s teacher about what your child is feeling will help your teacher better understand how to help them with the transition. And, on the flip side of things, the teacher may have helpful tips for how to help your child manage anxiety at home.

Things to Look Out For

Although anxiety is normal and to be expected, there are warning signs of more serious issues. Keep an eye out for these potential red flags:

  • School refusal
  • Withdrawal from loved ones or activities
  • Vague physical complaints (especially in younger kids) like headache or stomachache
  • Significant changes in mood, sleep, eating, behavior

If you notice any of the above, check out these resources:

For urgent situations, talk to your child’s pediatrician. They can assess your child and refer you to local behavioral health professionals.

Mental Health Resources for Adults

Lastly, you can’t be your best self for your kids if you’re not taking care of yourself. If you feel overwhelmed or are struggling with anxiety, depression, or another mental health concern, help is available.

Dr. Ryan Connolly, M.D., M.S.

About Dr. Ryan Connolly, M.D., M.S.

K. Ryan Connolly M.D., M.S. is a psychiatrist and behavioral health medical director at Independence Blue Cross. He is also a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Dr. Connolly has worked to improve mental health at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health, and has published on the subject of improving outcomes in depression treatment. Dr. Connolly has received degrees from the John's Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and Temple University, and completed his residency training at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

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