The start of the new school year is always a time of anxiety for children and parents. Being anxious about new teachers, new schools, and new friends all play a part in the normal ‘back to school’ routine. This September, however, COVID-19 is added to the mix, which may add to the heightened anxiety levels. What can schools and parents do to help children ease their way back into school and reduce the anxiety caused by COVID?
By the end of March, more than 90% of the world’s schools were closed.
Schools turned to online lessons, which, in theory, should have been a seamless transition to the continuation of vital education. However, the quality of provision varied greatly, and many parents, trying to work from home, found themselves having to oversee or, in some cases, take over their children’s education.
A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) tracking poll in mid-July revealed that 67% of parents with children 5–17 are worried their children will fall behind both educationally and socially if schools do reopen shortly.
The negative impact that COVID-19 has had on people’s mental health, in general, is clear. The same KFF tracking poll from mid-July found that the mental health of 53% of adults in the United States was impacted due to worry and stress about COVID-19, a 21% INCREASE from the 32% reported in March, when the question was first asked.
More worryingly, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report in June found that nearly 75% of young adults surveyed reported at least one mental health issue.
Like adults, children will have experienced worry, fear, and anxiety caused by lockdown and home confinement, family stress, and fears of getting, or having a relative get COVID-19 or dying.
With school closures and national lockdown measures, children suddenly and abruptly lost access to their daily structure and stimulation. They also lost their opportunity for regular contact, social interaction, and the support from friends that they need for good mental wellbeing.
A research report1 by Mireia Orgilés, published in April 2020, found that during the lockdown in Italy and Spain, 85.7% of parents observed changes in both their children’s emotional state and behavior, with the most common symptoms being difficulty concentrating, boredom and feelings of loneliness. It also revealed, unsurprisingly, the children had more screen time, slept more, and were less physically active.
For many children and teachers, it will be the first time in nearly six months that they have set foot in school, and the school they return to will be different from the one they left back in March.
Social distancing, one-way systems, staggered start times, frequent hand washing, and mask-wearing will, for many, become the ‘new normal’.
But what other worries might be causing your child to become more anxious?
Going back to school is always an anxious time, global pandemic or not, and some children, for whom school is not safe, being at home has been a welcome respite.
This year, they may be worried that going back to school even with safety measures, will put them at greater risk of catching COVID-19.
Inequalities in learning and attainment will inevitably have widened during the months spent at home due to the quality of education provided by each school and teacher.
The experience that children have had may indeed affect their future motivation to study. Many may undoubtedly be worried about how it will affect their future career paths, especially when it comes to public exams, and what they can do about it.
Nothing in life is ever certain!
When they return to school, they may experience some uncertainty over future lockdowns, confidence in their adult role models, and school regulations.
After all, something that was once safe and predictable may no longer be that reliable.
Six months of lockdown and social distancing has seen many relationships deteriorate and break down. When it comes to friendship groups, again, experiences will vary from child to child.
Some children, especially those with access to mobile phones and gaming devices, will have communicated with friends on a semi-regular basis. Others may have had no contact with anyone outside their immediate family.
Bullying is a big problem amongst children at the best of times, and COVID-19, its origins, and the recent BLM protests could mean that some children are worried about being bullied when they get back to school.
The best thing to do is to start talking to your child.
Try and open up a conversation about whether they’re worried or anxious about anything. Explain that there are no silly worries, that anxiety about going back to school is a perfectly natural feeling at the best of times, and maybe talk about some fun memories they have of school to ignite their enthusiasm.
It’s also important to reassure them that the safety measures are there to help keep everyone safe and healthy. Remind them that it’s important for them to do their bit to prevent germs spreading, by sneezing into their elbow and washing their hands regularly.
In addition to talking to your children, try and ensure you keep them updated and informed about the measures schools have put in place about classrooms, teaching, eating, and transport to and from school.
It’s difficult for everyone to go from holiday mode to ‘back-to-work’ mode, and this year after six months of a broken routine, late nights and homeschooling that first morning alarm is going to be especially difficult.
That’s why everyone needs to try and return to pre-COVID sleep routines a few weeks before school starts.
Starting now will help ease the transition back into school life.
Most countries have eased restrictions, and you can meet up with friends in a social bubble.
If this applies to you, maybe organize a meeting with some of your children’s friends in the local park.
If that’s not possible, help your child reconnect with their friends by organizing a video call.
Connecting with friends is one such coping strategy, but others include learning a few basic breathing exercises, exercising, and writing your feelings down.
For children, a simple breathing exercise can become a go-to tool whenever they begin to feel overwhelmed and stressed.
Sometimes children want to talk when you least expect it.
So rather than not being available because you’re on a work call, create space and time for talking in your day for your child.
This could be something as simple as going for a long walk or a car ride.
Children learn from their parents, and how you react and respond to outside stressors gives them cues to manage their own emotions and behavior. So it’s important that you look after your own mental health.
The Feel Relief Program is a great place to start. Using evidence-based techniques, it helps people self-manage their general mental wellbeing, by helping them change the way they think and behave.
The world we find ourselves in at the moment is very fluid and changes from day-to-day. There is talk of a second wave and more uncertainty over what that will entail for our lives. The program was created as part of our efforts to develop digital biomarkers and therapeutics to bring objective, passive, and continuous measurement and data to reinvent the way we diagnose, manage, and care for mental health.
But by being there for our children, being open to listening, and being a pillar of support for them, we can help them navigate through this.
 Mireia Orgilés, et al., (2020): “Immediate psychological effects of the COVID-19 quarantine in youth from Italy and Spain”