Helping children to manage their back-to-school anxiety

by | Aug 12, 2020

Change can cause a great deal of uncertainty – clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje has some tips on how to help your children as they go back to a very different school environment.

This year has been full of unexpected changes. During the national lockdown, those children who were able to, had to adjust to learning using online formats. Now, as the lockdown restrictions ease and children are allowed to go back to school, yet another adjustment is required.

Here are a few ways to help ease your child’s transition back to school:

  1. Acknowledge the losses

Many children will be looking forward to going back to school to be with their friends, catch up and play together. However, it is important to prepare your child realistically that going back to school will not be just the same as before. If a child is not prepared for the differences, they might become more disappointed or upset. For example, children will not be able to hug each other in greeting anymore. The loss of physical ways of showing affection such as hugs can be experienced as a loss of connecting in familiar ways.

  1. Age-appropriate information

Children need to be aware of and alert to the concerns and health risks inherent in going back to school. This information needs to be shared with children in age-appropriate ways that they can understand.

  1. Take control by following the precautions

In times of uncertainty it can feel as if we are helpless or have lost a sense of control over what is happening around us. One way to feel empowered is to help children take control of the behaviours that can help to keep them safe. For younger children it is especially important to model and practise hygiene precautions with them. Wearing their face mask, washing their hands regularly, taking their vitamins and coughing into their elbow are a few of the new behaviours that need to be practised at home first. At first, they might find these strange. So creating familiarity with them can ease the newness of these protocols. For example, wearing face masks can be made playful by allowing them to choose a cool design or to decorate it themselves. This can make the mask feel less scary and medical.

  1. Be aware of your child’s unique coping and strengths

All children have remarkable strengths and skills that can help them cope with difficult experiences or obstacles. Spend some time with your child brainstorming their strengths and ways they have coped in the past. For example, maybe your child tells you their strength is that they love drawing and this makes them feel calmer. This can be used to help them cope by getting them to keep a drawing or art journal where they express all their feelings about school and the effects of the pandemic.

  1. Have a debriefing space

Another way to manage anxiety is to have a space to talk about what was scary or different, or helpful and manageable in your child’s day. Try to create a space after school where your child can debrief with you. This can help them make sense of their feelings and to feel supported and cared for.

  1. Maintain a structure

Routine and structure can be experienced as a safety net, especially for younger children. The predictability of knowing what to expect each day makes other external uncertainties easier to tolerate and can lessen anxiety. Bedtime routines are one example of creating structure and consistency.

  1. Anxiety can affect concentration

When children are feeling anxious it can make it difficult for them to concentrate and pay attention for long periods of time. They may easily become distracted by their worries, such as, “what happens if Mom or Dad get sick?” or “will I ever be able to hug my friend again?”.

Helping children become aware of and challenge their worries can also help their concentration at school. One way of doing this is to create a ‘worry jar’. Help your child write down their worries each evening, and then slowly go through each one with them and explore whether the worry is real or irrational, and what you can do together to make the worry feel a bit better.