Back to School in the Pandemic Age

And just like that, the end of summer is upon us and with it the arrival of another school year. And, although parents were hoping for a return to a normal school year, many families are facing another year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant safety concerns and protocols.

Even under normal circumstances, it’s common for children to have difficulty adjusting to the return to school after summer activities and less structured days. The weeks leading up to the start of school can leave them worried about being away from home, meeting their teacher, interacting with classmates, and keeping up with their school work. It’s also possible that the pandemic has influenced and, in some instances, exacerbated children’s worries.

Of course, each child will have an individual response to the start of the school year, ranging from pure excitement to anxiety. (Parents may also be feeling a range of emotions—relief to have more time to themselves and sadness about missing their children.) So, while some children may be feeling happy and excited to see their friends and teachers and be in the classroom again, others may be feeling anxious about the months ahead. Many children will fall somewhere in the middle.

As a result, you may find your children exhibiting a range of behaviors that is markedly different than during the more unstructured, carefree days of summer. They may seem to anger more quickly, be sad for no apparent reason, or might overreact to seemingly small stressors.

What to make of these changes of mood and how best to respond? Here are some steps you can take when the back-to-school jitters start to kick in.

Validate your child’s feelings

It can be easy to jump to conclusions about what may be bothering your child about returning to school. However, gaining an understanding of what’s behind your child’s behavior can help you determine the best way to respond in the moment and also to plan ahead for concerns that may arise. Validating your child’s feelings also helps alleviate or release some of his anxieties and fears.

Try broaching the topic with open-ended questions and listen closely to determine what your child’s concerns are. You can say something like, ‘What are your thoughts about going back to school?’ Once your child opens up and tells you what he fears, be careful not to contradict him. For example, if he shares that he’s worried about looking silly in his mask and having others laugh at him, don’t say, ‘That’s silly, you don’t look silly and no one is going to laugh at you.’ Instead, tell him that it’s great he is sharing his fears with you and that if anything goes wrong at school, he can come right home and tell you. Then you can work together to figure out a way to handle the problem. As noted in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., “Fears don’t go away because someone tells you not to worry—what is reassuring is to know that if what you dread happens, you have someone to turn to who can help you.”

Once school starts, try to set aside some one-on-one time to learn about how your child’s day went. Instead of bombarding him with questions, which can make him feel pressure and reluctant to share his feelings, simply engage in an enjoyable activity together, such as walking the dog or playing catch. This will give him some space to talk about his school day if he’s comfortable doing so. Make sure you give him an opportunity to tell you about the bad as well as the good parts of his day.