Going back to school can bring excitement for some kids, and for others, some anticipation and worry. Young children can get nervous about leaving their parents. Older children may feel anxious about academics or how they'll fit in with their friends.
This year, COVID-19 continues to present challenges for students and families. Students may experience stress as they return to the classroom, and some may worry about themselves or a loved one becoming ill. And while COVID-19 is not new, there are still unknowns, especially as the Delta variant spreads.
"With the current pandemic, there's still a lot we don't know, and that can cause anxiety – especially for children who thrive on structure and routine," says Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "However, children are resilient, especially when they know their parents have their back and are in their corner cheering for them. Believe in your child's ability to adapt, empathize with their worries, validate their concerns and be patient and kind as they navigate another school year with so many unknowns."
Dr. Westers discusses back-to-school stress and anxiety, and ways that parents can support their children and offer reassurance during another pandemic school year.
What challenges may students face this school year?
Every year, most students have a few nerves when they return to school. But this year, students may feel uncertain about what's to come. The last year has been difficult for many people – and kids are not immune to stress.
Dr. Westers says as students return to school this year, they may face unique challenges such as:
- Rusty social skills. During the pandemic, there's been less face-to-face social interaction. This can increase feelings of social anxiety because students are "out of practice" when it comes to connecting with their peers. In particular, students who participated in virtual learning may worry about reacclimating socially.
- Fear of failure. It's normal for students to feel some pressure academically. This year, students may feel extra stress if they are concerned that they fell behind last year.
- Friendship breakdown. It's common for some school-age friends to drift apart during the summer break. After over a year of virtual learning and physical distancing, kids may worry if their friendships will remain intact when they return to school in-person.
- Anxiety about health and the future. While COVID-19 vaccines now offer protection against the threat of serious illness, the Delta variant and COVID-19 continue to spread. This may cause students to worry for their health or a loved one's. They may also worry about potential interruptions to their school year or extracurricular activities.
- Grief. Some students have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and may still be grieving. Some children will experience the stress of family members who recovered from COVID-19 but are coping with lasting symptoms or effects.
- Racism. In the past year, there has been increased attention on acts of racism, as well as an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. Students of color may worry about prejudice, discrimination and racism at their school if they are a minority. It's never too early to talk to your child about racism – see tips to help .
- Bullying and peer pressure. Bullying and peer pressure have always been concerns for students, but students may now worry about additional factors. For instance, wearing a mask may become a social divider among students. In situations where not all students choose to mask, students who wear masks may worry about people making fun of them or bullying them. Others may feel tempted not to wear a mask to fit in, and this could result in an internal struggle and feelings of guilt.
What are signs your child is feeling anxious about school?
Children show their anxiety in different ways. If you're concerned your child is feeling anxious about school, be on the lookout for changes in your child's behavior and mood.
Signs of anxiety can include:
- Disturbances in sleep
- Increased defiance or irritability
- Lack of concentration
- Less energy
- Loss of appetite
- Physical symptoms like nausea, muscle tension or dizziness
- Refusal to go to school
- Sadness or crying
How to support your child's mental health during COVID-19
How you support your child as they return to school may depend on how they feel and their age. Children under age 12 are more likely to have separation anxiety and need reassurance about being away from you, especially after spending increased time together. Older children may feel unsure about how the pandemic might affect their social connections or feel frustrated by COVID-19 precautions.
Dr. Westers recommends trying some of these techniques to help your child cope with back-to-school anxiety during COVID-19:
- Validate and listen to any concerns. Check in with your child frequently and listen to their concerns. Make sure to validate their emotions, letting them know their feelings and frustrations are understandable. "Rather than dismiss a child's anxiety about social situations, academic stress or COVID-19, validate what the child is saying," says Dr. Westers. "For example, parents can respond by saying, ‘I know you're worried about being around that many people again. What are you most concerned about?'"
- Focus on what they can control. During a time of so much uncertainty, help your child focus on what they can control. For health fears, this could mean getting vaccinated if eligible, hand washing, practicing physical distancing and wearing a face mask. For social concerns, this could mean focusing on their own interactions with and treatment of others.
- Help your child feel prepared. Explain to your child what you know about what the school year or classroom will look like to help them mentally prepare. If possible, visit the school with your child ahead of the first day of classes or allow your child to meet their teacher while taking proper COVID-19 precautions.
- Encourage overall physical health. Ensure your child is getting enough sleep, being physically active and eating healthy food. These habits can support a healthy body and a healthy mind.
- Establish routines. Having a daily routine brings consistency and structure, which can help minimize feelings of anxiety.
- Teach stress-reducing activities. Teach your child to incorporate stretches, deep breathing, meditation or exercise into their daily routine to relieve anxiety.
- Support hobbies. Encourage your child to do more of what they enjoy most, whether reading, playing outside or other activities.
- Resist the urge to "rescue" your child socially: If your child has social anxiety, help them confidently re-enter the school setting – but resist the urge to "rescue" them from uncomfortable situations. "Validate your child's anxiety while also showing that you believe in them and their ability to work through the discomfort," says Dr. Westers. "A therapist may be helpful in guiding you and your child through this."
- Show encouragement and celebrate the wins. Consider sending positive or encouraging notes in your child's lunch or backpack. Small actions can show you are there for your child. After the first week of school (or after any special achievement during the school year), plan a fun celebration, such as a favorite dinner, movie night or special activity together.
- Seek mental health support if needed: Although children are resilient, it's important to pay attention to signs of anxiety. If your child is prone to anxiety and continues to have difficulty coping, do not hesitate to seek professional help. See mental health resources for kids and teens.
Remember that not only are students and parents feeling the weight of COVID-19 during back-to-school, so are teachers and school staff. Be patient with teachers as they face demands while also trying to educate and invest in each student.
Lastly, it's important to acknowledge that this time of uncertainty is stressful for parents and that parents should take steps to care for themselves, too.
"We know from research that children can tell when their parents are stressed and anxious," says Dr. Westers. "Talk to your child about your feelings and explain the ways that you cope with anxiety. Modeling healthy behaviors and coping skills is one of the best ways you can support your child during this time."
More COVID-19 resources
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.
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