Managing Children’s Back-to-School Anxiety

Kelly Moore, a Rutgers mental health expert discusses how to prepare children to return to school, signs of emotional distress and benefits of virtual learning.

Students preparing to return to school — in-person, remotely or both — are facing stresses unique to the type of learning they will engage in this fall. Knowing signs of emotional distress and preparing children to bond with peers and teachers before school begins is important to a successful transition, says Kelly Moore, a licensed clinical psychologist and program manager for the Children’s Center for Resilience and Trauma Recovery at Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare, who discusses how parents and teachers can help children navigate the return to school:

How can students form a bond with teachers and classmates while remote learning?

Students should be as engaged as possible. They should be required to use their video option, so they can be seen and should ask questions or offer comments during class instruction. Teachers should engage students by calling on those who do not often speak up. It is critical that schools ensure that virtual classroom features facilitate this process and that students and teachers know how to use the technology.

Some children have really thrived in this virtual school environment while others have struggled. This difference can be true even with siblings. This type of school situation calls for parents, teachers and school staff to really work together to help students stay connected educationally and socially. Once schools get acclimated to remote learning this fall, having virtual clubs for students would be an excellent idea for student engagement.

Adults likely will need to be more hands-on than ever before to ensure that children connect with peers. Many students use online gaming and social media platforms to stay connected. Parents can arrange for virtual activities – virtual escape rooms and mystery games, for example – that are increasingly available. They also can do activities that strengthen family bonds: puzzles, movie nights or creating a family book club where you read a book and then watch the movie.

What are signs of emotional distress in children?

Parents should watch for changes in their children’s normal mood patterns: Are they withdrawing, irritable, having trouble sleeping or being overly clingy and fearful? Elementary school-age children will often show their emotions through their behaviors. Signs of emotional distress can include regression in behaviors that were once mastered, increased separation anxiety or asking a lot of questions repeatedly.

Teachers may notice students who used to be participatory are being less vocal, turning in assignments late or not at all. If teachers notice shifts in class engagement, work performance or attendance that is a red flag.

In addition to the Covid pandemic, many young people may also be feeling the emotional stress and frustration regarding recent events like the murders of unarmed Black men and women and the increased talk about racism in America. I would encourage all parents to talk to their children about these issues in an age-appropriate manner. We cannot take it for granted that they know how to talk about how it’s affecting them and having to now return to school may just intensify those emotions. And if you don’t know how, read books or articles that give you ideas on how to talk to kids about race.

Therapists are offering free or reduced cost support groups for youth and teens. Introduce children and teens to apps that teach them about meditation, guided imagery and yoga. Learning new stress management skills may become a lifelong practice.

How can adults ease the distress children feel about returning to school or continuing virtual learning?

In an unpredictable world, having accurate information in doses we can tolerate and establishing routines can ease distress. Schools and families with students learning at home should establish a clear structure and routine. Children returning physically to school should understand what to expect and the safety guidelines in place. Children might feel more in control if they can pick out or decorate their own masks to wear each day in the classroom.

If at-home learning is feasible, parents can empower children by including them in discussions about whether to pursue in-person, hybrid or virtual learning, and ask them to list their pros and cons about each option.

What are the emotional pros and cons of virtual learning?

While hybrid or virtual leaning can impact some of the traditional aspects of social and emotional skill building like making friends, speaking in groups or navigating a new building, virtual learning may promote new skills. On these platforms, the student has to stay more engaged, pay attention to facial cues during conversations and improve their technological skills, so they can take advantage of chat and reaction features. As students and teachers become more comfortable with these platforms, students also may speak up more to be recognized and communicate more clearly and concisely. Their typing skills also may improve.

What unique challenges do children in underserved communities face?

Children in these communities are now at a greater risk for food insecurity and falling behind academically. It is critical that they have at least one supportive adult to help ensure they have their basic needs — food, safety, shelter and technology— met so they can keep up with their peers. Schools should enlist their counselors, social workers, nurses and child study team staff in innovative ways to reach these students.

(Kelly Moore is a licensed clinical psychologist and program manager for the Children’s Center for Resilience and Trauma Recovery at Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare)

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