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- Children are more vulnernable to the emotional impacts of traumatic events compared to adults
- Changes to childrens’ routines interfere with their sense of security
- Caregivers can foster a sense of safety by maintaining routines and structure
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Managing Back-to-School Anxiety during Covid19
By: Melissa Donadio, M.A.
Beginning or going back to school can be an anxiety inducing time for children, especially in the middle of the covid19 pandemic. While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the risk of children being diagnosed with Covid-19 is lower than adults (CDC, 2021), children are more vulnerable compared to adults to the emotional impact of traumatic events (Pelaez & Novak, 2020). Even children who did not directly experience grief or illness related to covid19 have felt disruption in their daily lives, such as hearing news reports about the impacts of covid19, changes in their school schedule, or listening to members of their household discuss negative impacts of the pandemic. All of these experiences can lead to increased anxiety in children, which may be expressed in a variety of ways.
Since children may not have the vocabulary to identify their feelings, it is important to observe any changes in their behaviors. Some children experiencing anxiety may present with avoidance of certain activities (i.e., reluctance or refusal to attend school), fear of specific situations related to illness (i.e., going to the doctor), difficulty relaxing, clinginess, irritability, trouble concentrating, or ongoing worries about the future (Iannelli, 2021). Likewise, children are very observant of their environments and people around them and can notice stress that others are feeling (Pelaez & Novak, 2020). These observations, along with adjustments to their daily routines (e.g., social distancing, child-care closures), interfere with their sense of security and predictability (Bartlett, Griffin, & Thoms, 2020). Thus, it is important for caregivers to provide consistent support to children to assist them in managing anxiety and developing resilience.
Responsive caregivers can increase a child’s sense of safety by creating consistency and structure (Honen & Gilmour, 2020). This can be done through predictable events or schedules, such as a consistent bedtime, family mealtime, or family game night. It may also be helpful for caregivers to learn children’s school schedules to encourage specific times for certain activities. Support to children can also be provided by offering reassurance about their safety and the safety of others (Pelaez & Novak, 2020). Caregivers can do this by using age-appropriate language to explain that it is adults’ jobs, including teachers, to maintain their safety.
Additionally, caregivers should support children’s regulation. When children are stressed, their bodies respond by activating their stress response system (Bartlett et al., 2020). To assist children in coping with these reactions, caregivers can validate their feelings and encourage self-regulating activities. For instance, caregivers can say, “I know this feels scary” or encourage mindfulness or exercise to calm both their mind and body. Caregivers can also teach deep breathing exercises that can be utilized when a child feels anxious at school. Lastly, when anxiety begins to interfere with children’s daily lives, it may be beneficial to obtain professional help with a mental health worker.
Caregivers can utilize the following recommendations to promote resilience as children return to school:
- Provide age-appropriate information
- Make yourself available to answer children’s’ questions
- Remind children of what they can predict, and encourage acceptance of that cannot be predicted
- Promote feelings of calmness by utilizing mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, relaxing noises, or peaceful activities
- Join in with your child’s emotions and then problem solve
- Stick to routines when possible, including times and days for specific activities
- Learn your child’s school schedule to reinforce predictability
- Create a secure and structured environment
- https://www.nj.gov/education/covid19/studentsfamilies/wellness.shtml A list of virtual resources for k-12 students
- https://good-grief.org/ A variety of resources for children coping with grief, including specific grief resources related to covid19
- https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-say-kids/202008/back-school-during-covid-19 Tips on supporting children during a pandemic during back-to-school time
- https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/how-to-support-children-and-yourself-during-the-covid-19-outbreak/ Videos and articles on how to support children and caregivers during a covid19 outbreak
- https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/parental-resource-kit/index.html Several resources to promote physical, emotional, social, and mental health separated by grade levels
Bartlett, J., Griffin, J. & Thomson, D. (2020, March 19). Resources for supporting children’s emotional well-being during the covid19 pandemic. Child Trends. Retrieved from: https://www.childtrends.org/publications/resources-for-supporting-childrens-emotional-well-being-during-the-covid-19-pandemic
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, July 9). Science brief: Transmission of SARS-Cov-2 in k-12 schools and early care and education programs, updated. CDC. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/transmission_k_12_schools.html
Hohnen, B., & Gilmour, J. (2020, August 28). School Psychologists’ tips: Preparing children for return to school. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/28/how-parents-can-prepare-their-children-for-going-back-to-school
Iannelli, V. (2021, April 11). Anxiety symptoms in children. Very Well Mind. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/anxiety-symptoms-2633863
Pelaez, M. & Novak, G. (2020). Returning to school: Separation problems and anxiety in the age of pandemics. Behavioral Analysis in Practice, 13, 521-526. doi: 10.1007/s40617-020-00467-2