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.
Deal with fears about separating from home and family
For many children, the pandemic provided an opportunity to spend more time at home with family, which many children experienced as a safe haven from the pandemic. As a result, school may now represent a place where they may feel unsafe and scared to be around others.
If you learn that separation is causing your child’s concerns, remember that Smart Love teaches that children need to have “a positive inner nourishment to sustain them while they are at school.” To achieve this, first validate her feelings about leaving you and going to school. You could say, ‘It’s normal to feel nervous about going back to school after being away for so long.’ Then try to find ways to refamiliarize her with in-person school. Visiting the school by driving or walking by or communicating with teachers via email or video chat can be helpful. For younger children who are just starting preschool or Kindergarten, you could read a book together about starting school.
For younger kids, carrying a transitional object, such as a family photo or small memento, can help them feel connected to home. This could be something small that they can keep with them at school and that they can hold onto for reassurance and connection to a parent when they feel alone.
Deal with fears about safety and uncertainty
You may find that your child is scared of getting sick themselves or potentially making their family and friends sick. To help children in this situation, you can reassure them that their school is following what the doctors and experts suggest to keep them safe and emphasize that they can always come to you with questions.
As we have experienced over the last year and half, circumstances can change very quickly regarding the pandemic. Parents should let their children know that they are ready for any changes that arise and prepare their children for the possibility that their school will have to adapt how they are operating in order to keep everyone safe.
Reflecting on the experiences of last school year in a positive light could also help. You could say, ‘I know that with the pandemic there are lots of changes and it’s normal to feel uncertain or even experience frustration. But remember last year and all the changes we had to adopt, like wearing masks and keeping our distances? Together we did it. And like last year you can always count on mom and dad to help you.’
We know from decades of work with children that they look to their parents on how to manage their emotions—from stress and anxiety to happiness and excitement. Parents and caregivers are the most impactful source of modeling the behavior children will adopt. If you find yourself understandably struggling with your own stress and anxiety in the face of the continuing pandemic, try talking about your emotions with a trusted friend, spouse, or partner. Doing this can help you avoid sharing your own stress with your children and allow you to be present for them—listening and responding to them in a consistent way. As the Piepers explain in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Gide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying you Child, “If adults take a friendly, positive, and nonjudgmental approach to helping their children explore their conflicting feelings, children will feel cared for, understood, and relieved,” easing your children’s back-to-school worries so that they can fully embrace school and learning.
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Smart Love Solutions for Early Childhood, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2012.
Back-to-School Anxiety During COVID, Caroline Miller, the Child Mind Institute.
Prepare your kids mentally for the transition back to school, Dr. Neha Chaudhary, CNN Health, March 10, 2021.
How to Handle Your Kids’ Back-to-School Anxiety, Ryan Buxton, Katie Couric Media, August 7, 2021.