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How to Ease Your Children's Anxiety Returning to In-Person Learning

It's about to be back to school time. Nervousness or anxiety may begin to set in as students begin to return to class. It’s normal to feel these emotions, according to mental health professionals. In fact, it’s not uncommon for children to be a little more irritable, experience sleep disturbances, or state that they have have “butterflies” in their stomachs.

Again, this can be expected. While children are excited to see their friends, they also have to get back to a routine or be concerned about homework or how they’ll get along with their teacher.

This year, however, presents additional challenges -- namely the uptick of COVID-19 cases. As a consequence, this is causing more anxiety than normal. What’s more, the previous year of remote learning has taken a toll on the emotional and mental health of children. In fact, it’s been found that many children have fallen behind academically.

“What I’m seeing, a lot, is that parents have concerns about the what-ifs of school and is a full-day, in-person, learning environment really going to happen. And if it does happen, is it sustainable,” said Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Burke, Virginia.

Patton-Smith said the children she works with are excited about returning to school.

“And a lot of them are prepared for the fact that it’s not absolutely certain what school is going to look like, but they’re ready to try,” Patton-Smith said. “They have been such troopers, and really have tried to make the virtual learning experience work last year, and have really embraced, at the end of last year, the hybrid experience.”

While this is completely understandable, there are ways that you can help your children cope with back-to-school anxiety during COVID-19.

Know the facts and be as prepared as possible.

To begin with, you must be aware of the risks and benefits of returning to school in person during this ongoing pandemic. Find out how the virus causing COVID-19 is transmitted and what requirements your school district must meet in order to reopen safely from reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Students, especially younger ones, should expect increased caution regarding their health. If your child has a runny nose, cough, and fever, he or she should stay home until they have recovered. During an outbreak, schools may have to shut down for a period of time if a student tests positive for the COVID-19 virus.

While this can be difficult for children, it may be inevitable for the time being. Talk this through with them so that they know that this could be a possibility.

Equip your children emotionally.

There is a phenomenon called imaginary audience that’s common among adolescents. To put it more simply, they believe that everyone is watching their every move. It's a phase that eventually passes. Child psychologist Douglas Goldsmith states that you should not dismiss these feelings.

“Parents need to respond empathically. ‘I’ll bet that does make you nervous. I bet you do worry that everyone is going to see that you had stitches in your forehead this weekend,’” he says.

Alternatively, Goldsmith advises parents to teach their children to come up with clever, but non-intimidating, answers to bullying. Boosting a child's confidence is a significant benefit, he says.

He adds, “some kids are being teased about their bodies. The kids in high school and junior high school are pretty ruthless and I equip them to say, ‘I’m surprised that my body is that much of a focus to you.’”

Be observant.

Be on the lookout for their behaviors -- regardless if you expect a smooth reentry or a rocky start.

Although some kids will be excited to meet their peers and teachers, there are others who may feel overwhelmed by a new social environment after over a year of social distancing, isolation, and remote learning.

Be on the lookout for signs of depression among your children, such as becoming withdrawn, sleeping or eating disruptions, no longer taking interest in activities they enjoyed, or stating that they have physical pain like body aches.

Foster open communication.

Constantly check in with your children. Ask them how they’re doing. And, validate their feelings. What’s more, talk through their feelings and brainstorm possible solutions.

While your child’s teacher is also going through a stressful time, you may want to reach out to them if you suspect that something is off with your child.

Do what’s right for your family.

In-person learning may not be appropriate for every child. For example, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may perform better academically at home since they’re away from distractions. Also, if a child lives in a multigenerational household, they may be concerned that they will spread the virus at school, causing their parents and grandparents to become infected.

In the cases above, remote instruction may be a better option until they feel safe returning to school. However, if your child relies on services, such as counseling and tutoring, in-person instruction is more essential.

Model your own behavior.

There’s a decent chance that you’re equally anxious about your children returning to school this year. In fact, a quarter of parents don’t want their children rising the school bus. While normal, your children will pick up on these feelings.

You can articulate your own feelings with your children. Just like having them open up to you, talking to them could help you work through these feelings. More importantly, you need to take care of your own health and well-being. Some suggestions would be physical activity, meditating, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, or even therapeutic journaling.

Speak with Your primary care provider and/or therapist.

Finally, schedule a visit with your child’s pediatrician or mental health professional. They can provide resources and strategies that both you and your child can use to help ease their anxiety as they resume in-person instruction.

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