General News

Managing Anxiety for Return to School

Posted on Aug 21, 2020

Kids are experiencing a lot of change, uncertainty and stress during this time. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., discusses concerns kids may be experiencing.

An important piece to keep in mind is that kids are resilient. Many kids already have adapted to the stressors and current challenges of our situation. However, kids respond to big emotions, and worry more when they see others worrying. Keep in mind that anxiety is contagious, and we need to keep ourselves calm and have a strategy for speaking with our children and preparing for this school year. 

Kids have many concerns right now, and they differ by age and schooling type. Younger kids may not be as worried and may be more annoyed or worried about wearing a mask. Older kids may have greater worries about returning to school and understanding the health risk of COVID-19. For those with virtual schooling, adolescents may be more worried about accessing the curriculum, falling behind, and having multiple stressors/distractors at home. As a parent who still goes to work each day, I am very concerned about child care and balancing the safety of my son and his care so that I can work.

Regardless of age or school type, as parents, we need to equip our kids with proper coping skills and supports, but for the most part, anecdotally, many adjust and are glad to be back.

How can we talk to our kids about anxiety and return to school? 

Early elementary – Keep it brief with simple info about COVID-19, “Keeping safe from germs.” Provide reassurances that adults and behaviors keep them healthy. Say things like “adults are working hard to keep you safe,” and “wash hands to keep germs away.”

Upper elementary and middle school — Assist the child in distinguishing reality from rumor/fantasy, discuss what plans leaders and teachers are doing to keep them safe, remind them of how they keep each other safe and how important it is to take care of one another.

Upper middle and high school — Discuss issues more in depth, encourage healthy interactions and recognizing others’ points of view. Provide honest, factual information and engage them in shared decision-making

For all children, be a good listener and encourage them to verbalize their thoughts

As a parent, what should I be doing? What should we be watching for as we return to school?

Talk to kids about safety, and review the school safety plan. Ensure them the school authorities are keeping them safe. Monitor anxiety closely. Signs of anxiety may include:

Preschoolers — Thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior and withdrawal

Elementary school children — irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends

Adolescents — sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior and poor concentration.

Students need mental health support. What can we do to prevent concerns? 

Practice coping skills:

  • Make deep breathing, meditation, yoga a part of the daily school routine
  • Talk about emotions and how they impact our behaviors
  • Focus on the positive
  • Establish and maintain routines, especially routine when walking in the door from school, everything from handwashing, maybe removing clothes, to snacks and homework
  • Know when concerns are escalating and begin to impact daily functioning, and reach out to your pediatrician or mental health provider.

We are all anxious, but we are going to get through this together.

On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital experts. Visit  each Monday for the latest report.  You also can explore  more advice  from Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D.  

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