Living Well

Ways to ease back-to-school stress in kids

Rebecca Nguyen, MD
Ways to ease back-to-school stress in kids

During a typical year, children gearing up for a new school year can often feel stressed about what is about to occur. Obviously, nothing has been typical for school children since March 2019, when everything halted due to COVID-19. Many children are returning to full-time, in-person learning for the first time in 17 months. It should come as no surprise that some children are going to have extra jitters, but there are things parents can do to ease their concerns and anxieties.

Lost classroom time can add to back-to-school jitters

Looking back, most adults can remember the feeling of those night-before butterflies they had at the start of a new school year. After a summer break, it was time to get back into a school routine. As the first day of a new school year arrived, anxiety rose a little, especially if you were changing schools or moving into those higher grades where the social pressures are greater. Those were the ‘good ol’ days’ compared to now, as children today are having to deal with all of the above and an ongoing pandemic. Despite the challenges, kids need to get back in the classroom not only for academic reasons but also for social reasons. According to a March 2021 Horace Mann Educators Corporation survey of K-12 educators, the pandemic has had a tremendous negative impact on learning and social skills. The survey found:

  • 97 percent of teachers reported a loss of learning among their students
  • 47 percent believe there is now an even wider learning gap between struggling students and high-performing students
  • When it comes to social-emotional learning advancement, 57 percent said their students are now at least three months behind, struggling students even more

Hopefully, some of the gaps can be tightened this year as kids get back to in-school learning and find some sense of normalcy. ‘Normal,’ however, may look different than it did when schools were suddenly shut down in 2020. For kids and parents alike, just getting back into some routine is a huge step in the right direction. Now with safety protocols in place and more people getting vaccinated, school officials are hopeful that the 2021 school year can move along with little disruptions.

Identifying anxiety in school-age children and ways to ease those concerns

If your little one is back to the classroom, know there may be some anxiety that appears, even in the days or weeks following the beginning of school opening as he or she adjusts to being back full-time. While kids may not be able to express in words how they are feeling, there are some signs that your child could be experiencing some undue anxiety:

  • Is more restless or fidgety
  • Is more clingy than normal
  • Displays changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Displays bouts of and anger or gets upset quickly
  • Has bouts of crying spells for no reason
  • Is unable to concentrate

If any of these behaviors become more noticeable, especially for more than a week or two, it needs to be addressed. For parents or guardians, there are steps you can take to help children adjust and manage whatever may be bothering them:

  • Ask questions and listen patiently; validate their concerns as real, regardless of what they are – what may seem like something minor to you is a big deal to a child.
  • Stay positive and do your best to turn what your child perceives as a problem or issue into something positive. For instance, if he or she is anxious about being in a new school, turn that anxiety into a positive about how many new friends they will meet.
  • Reassure your child that others are experiencing the same thing and relate a story to when you were in school and felt anxious or afraid and what you did to overcome those fears.
  • If the ongoing impacts of COVID are concerning, reassure your child that schools are safe. If appropriate, you can even print all the protocols schools are taking to show your child what is being done to keep everyone safe.
  • Use small rewards when positive steps are taken. If your child has a good week, showing few signs of unease, and that things may be getting back to normal, go out for ice cream and celebrate the baby steps taken. Not only can it be a fun time, but it can boost confidence.

A warning to parents, though. If your child continues to show signs of stress and anxiety for several weeks, don’t hesitate to get some professional help. Contact your child’s doctor and discuss a plan moving forward. The sooner you address whatever issues may be bothering your child, the better.

About Dr. Rebecca Nguyen:
Professional headshot of Dr. Rebecca NguyenDr. Nguyen specializes in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics and has been part of the medical staff at West Jefferson Medical Center since 2003. She is fluent in Vietnamese and has a special interest in women’s health, preventative care of all ages, and pediatric growth and development. She enjoys seeing patients of all ages and wants to help improve their health and prevent chronic medical illnesses.