Coping With Back-to-School Anxiety During COVID-19
Mar 15, 2021 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Going back to school can be stressful for any child—especially for kids living through the COVID-19 pandemic and returning to the classroom.
A year of remote learning has taken an emotional, mental and developmental toll. Many children have fallen behind in their studies, missed out on big milestones and suffered from a lack of peer interaction that helps develop crucial social skills.
Now, declining rates of COVID-19 cases mean elementary schools in Los Angeles Unified School District are eligible to reopen, with safety provisions such as masking and physical distancing. But although a return to in-person school promises a more stable, interactive learning environment, the transition also presents new mental health challenges.
"Even though in-person learning is usually best for their physical and mental health overall, it could take a while for them to adapt back. Kids are resilient, but they also have emotions without the maturity to process those emotions in a healthy way."
"There are so many mixed feelings among parents and kids about going back to school," says Dr. Kyle Monk, a pediatrician at Cedars-Sinai. "We're excited about the benefits of in-person learning, not only because so many of my patients have struggled academically, but because school is really important for kids' development."
On the other hand, she says, families are fearful about safety and anxious over the potential disruption of reclosures in the event a classmate tests positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Here, Dr. Monk shares how to support your children during a return to in-person school—and how to cope with your own fears and anxieties—to ensure a successful transition.
Know the facts and what to expect
First, be informed about the real risks and benefits of a return to in-person school during the ongoing pandemic. Consult reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about how the virus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted and requirements for schools to reopen safely.
Be prepared for increased caution over kids' health, especially younger students. Children with runny noses, coughs and fevers, despite the cause, will be required to stay home until they're well. If a peer tests positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, schools may need to shut down for a period in the hopes of avoiding an outbreak.
"Closing down frequently can be hard emotionally—kids could be in school one day doing great, and then out for 10 days for a quarantine," Dr. Monk says. "Children are stressed about falling behind in classwork and not being able to keep up."
Observe your child's behavior
Whether you anticipate your student will thrive in the classroom or you worry about a tough reentry, pay attention to their behaviors.
While some kids will be excited to meet their peers and teachers, other young children who've adjusted to isolation may feel overwhelmed in a new social environment.
Watch for signs of depression: Children may become withdrawn, develop eating disorders or anxiety around food, and their stress might manifest in abdominal or other physical pain. Kids who have been cyberbullied during virtual learning, especially, will undergo emotional strain in social settings.
"These problems can affect learning," Dr. Monk says. "Even though in-person learning is usually best for their physical and mental health overall, it could take a while for them to adapt back. Kids are resilient, but they also have emotions without the maturity to process those emotions in a healthy way."
No matter your child's reaction to in-person school, foster open conversations.
"Keep checking in with your kids," Dr. Monk says. "Ask them how they're doing and let them know how you're feeling as well."
If they express fear or anxiety, validate their feelings—your support can help them continue to be honest with you, so that you're aware of and able to address issues. At the same time, reassure kids that schools are following public health guidelines.
"Sometimes parents are excited to get kids back in school, but the kids are not," Dr. Monk says. "If your child is reluctant to return, even if you have different views, try to make them feel confident you're doing everything in your power to keep them safe and comfortable."
"Kids are going to hear what their parents are saying about politics and policies around face masks and stay-at-home orders. Kids talk about this, and it can add stress for them. It's good just to let them know the facts."
Dr. Monk recommends to stay in touch with teachers, too, especially if your child is comparing themselves to their peers and worrying they're not performing their best.
Most importantly, listen and know that your child is listening to you, too.
"Kids are going to hear what their parents are saying about politics and policies around face masks and stay-at-home orders," she says. "Kids talk about this, and it can add stress for them. It's good just to let them know the facts."
Make the right decision for your family
Some kids might not be ready for in-person learning—for example, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be flourishing in home learning, away from distractions. Other kids who live in multigenerational housing with at-risk family members are worried about contracting the virus at school and infecting parents and grandparents.
"For families who are not sure they're ready, they can weigh the risks and benefits and determine if virtual learning is still the best model for them," Dr. Monk says. "Explore the option of continuing virtual learning until you feel safe."
For parents who rely on school services such as tutoring, speech and occupational therapy and counselors, the return to school will be crucially important.
"A lot of people are anticipating in-person learning with open arms and can't get back fast enough," Dr. Monk says. "It's disheartening that the kids who need support are falling behind, and those families will really benefit from having those services again."
Rely on your pediatrician
Remember that your child's primary care provider is there to support your family: Cedars-Sinai pediatricians make time to check in with kids about their mental health during every visit, even general checkups.
Pediatricians can share resources for social skills classes to ease kids back into group settings and refer patients to therapists, including virtual group therapy.
"So many kids have lost loved ones, or their living situations are changing, and they're worried about the future—not just school, but their health as well," Dr. Monk says. "Right now, we're not only doctors, but shoulders to lean on to support kids and parents."