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How to Manage Anxiety Surrounding Back-to-School Transition

August 6, 2020 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON – Even as students across the United States are beginning to head back to class, the reopening of schools remains a topic of intense debate. While no one can predict what is ahead for the Fall of 2020, there can be no doubt that COVID-19 has and will continue to impact the U.S. educational system, and that the nation is in for a challenging academic year. 

Reactions are widespread. Some students and parents are eager for schools to reopen, though others fear the danger of possible new infections. Staff from school districts nationwide are protesting what they believe to be unsafe opening plans, even while distance learning proposals give them serious concerns. And even a dual approach has legitimate challenges. 

All of this makes navigating the transition back to school more foreboding than ever. 

“These are unprecedented times and, as such, this is a particularly stressful life moment for us all,” said a pair of Harvard-trained psychiatrists who offered The Well News tips and advice for parents on managing anxieties surrounding getting back to school in 2020. 

Drs. Carlin Barnes and Marketa Wills of Healthy Mind MDs, LLC recently co-authored the book “Understanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and Friends.” While COVID-19 isn’t a mental health crisis, it is creating some extreme stressors that may require similar coping mechanisms.

“In times of stress, it is critically important to pause, stop, and reflect on how you’re feeling and why. This allows you to thoughtfully and effectively respond to a situation rather than irrationally react,” the doctors suggest, insisting that this personal reflection will also help you to communicate your thoughts and feelings to your partner and your child. 

“Remember, you are always role modeling healthy behaviors for your child(ren)… We know that children often react to their parents’ emotions and behaviors, so if you are anxious and worried you may transfer those feelings over to your child.”

Many current anxieties center around whether or not parents believe their children should go back to school, whether distance education can provide an adequate learning environment, and — with no clear guidelines for handling the fallout of positive COVID tests in an academic setting — how to secure children’s health and well-being. 

Drs. Barnes and Wills agree that determining whether or not a child is ready to go back to school is no easy task, but they do provide some general guidelines. First, they ask you to take a close look at how your child handled the end of the 2019-2020 school year with at-home learning. If your child adapted relatively easily to the virtual learning format, that’s a positive sign, with many school systems relying on virtual learning for at least the first few months of the school year. 

But, if your child’s academic achievement declined with the learning model change, you may need to assess your personal options. Stay up to date on announcements for your child’s school and consider a Plan B or even Plan C alternative as COVID-19 still has the potential to change circumstances rapidly. “Carefully make the decision that’s right for your family,” Drs. Barnes and Wills said. “Feel confident in that and plan accordingly — BUT be flexible and ready to pivot should circumstances in your community change.”

And should your child seem preoccupied with their own worries and fears about returning to the brick and mortar environment, give them space to verbally express this anxiety to you. “Let the child know that it is okay to be anxious — that at times even you as a parent are anxious — but that as a family you will get through and you will be there to protect your child,” they said. 

Should your child be in a system that has decided on an in-person return to school, it is important for everyone’s well-being that you stay knowledgeable about the spread of COVID-19 and the facts about what is happening in your particular school district. 

“Provide constant oversight and monitoring,” they said, stressing that parents need to make sure their children understand the importance of washing their hands, staying socially distant, wearing face coverings while away from home, and knowing that if they aren’t feeling well they should alert their teacher immediately.

Many homes will have the additional pressure of parents working from home while children engage in virtual learning from the same atmosphere. In these cases, Drs. Barnes and Wills suggested that both parents and children make time to exercise multiple times a week and make an attempt to get some sunlight every day. “Take frequent breaks and be cognizant of how much screen time you and your child are being exposed to,” they said. 

They also recommend teaching real-life skills like cooking, cleaning, or gardening in creative at-home lesson plans and suggest finding ways for children to connect with their friends. 

If your child regresses into tantrums, baby talk, or clinginess, or becomes irritable and defiant, it may be a sign that they are feeling anxious about the COVID-19 situation. To manage this, they suggest that you try to ensure that your child is getting the proper amount of sleep each night, has adequate outlets for exercise and physical activity and is able to have fun and enjoy being a kid. “Be honest with your child and communicate the facts in a way and at a level that your child can understand,” they offered. “Knowing the facts can help stabilize anxiety.”

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