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Back to school anxiety during Covid and how can we deal with it?

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Published on 09 September 2021

Children are back at school
Children are back at school

Millions of pupils have returned to classrooms in England and Wales this week after the summer holidays.

With rules on social distancing and face masks now scrapped, and a decision on Covid jabs for children expected within days – Dr Sarah Pickup, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, explores the steps parents or families can take to tackle back to school anxiety.

For those with children who may suffer with worry and anxiety about returning to school, particularly in light of the Covid pandemic, I think there are a number of things that families can do for their children that will also have positive repercussions for themselves. The needs of infants, primary and secondary schoolers will differ as will the tools to support them. Generally, and broadly, however, the following can help empower children and provide the opportunities to create a calmer sense of self:

Acceptance and tolerance. Accepting that your child has these anxieties and that they will find this transition challenging creates more proactive opportunities to manage the situation. When children have their worries and anxieties acknowledged it provides a safe psychological environment.

Be mindful. Become more consciously aware of your own verbal and non-verbal communications around children. Children of all ages will soak up all kinds of information, from your body language, the way you react to news, the tone of your voice and what you actually say.

Look for signs. The impending return to school is likely to generate anxiety and stress, which manifests in a range of ways - emotional symptoms such as getting upset or distressed more easily, an angry outburst or being agitated.

Talking. Children often experience very similar physical symptoms for nervousness, excitement and fear, and younger children find it very challenging to disentangle and understand the source of their feelings. At this time of year, I would think it’s difficult to determine how much worry and anxiety is over Covid and how much it is returning to school. Both are different, but interrelated issues and need to be addressed. So, providing opportunities to have open and honest conversations is important.

For Covid anxieties allow them to ask you open and candid questions and be honest in your responses. A range of sources exist to support discussions with children around issues relating to Covid, such as Children’s Commissioner’s Children’s Guide to Coronavirus. For school transitions, it is hoped that schools have taken this into account and have been strategically transitioning children into schools, including those with moves from primary to secondary.

Deep breaths. Physical symptoms of stress and anxiety include increased heart rate, surges of adrenaline, which leads to panic, and an inability to think rationally and calmly. Taking a moment of calm with slow, deep breaths helps control some of these symptoms. Try taking a breath in for seven seconds and slowly releasing for 11 seconds and repeat.

Consistent messages of support. In addition to slow deep breaths, using mindfulness techniques, for example, can provide you with a repertoire of tools, which, when regularly reinforced, provide some degree of stability and comfort for a child (and adult). It also allows us to ‘take’ control rather than ‘being’ controlled.

• Encouraging them to focus on a single thought or feeling at a time creates all important headspace and reduces anxiety.

• Address each thought and feeling, ‘shoot or blow it” away.

• Challenge any unhelpful thoughts, such as “I can’t do this” and remind them of times they have overcome challenges however small. Use your own experiences.

• Remind them of the support available when they are at school.

• Develop their problem solving. ‘Together’ ask the question, “okay, how can we deal with this?” and ‘together’ develop solutions.

Acknowledge small achievements. Acknowledge those small steps and victories.

We are expected to find out in the coming days whether 12 to 15-year-olds will be offered the Covid-19 vaccination. Meanwhile, the Health Secretary said children will get the final say on whether they take up the jab if a disagreement arises between them and their parents.

The statistics indicate that the uptake in adults has been extremely successful, though we are aware that attitudes on this subject can vary, significantly.

Parents, who are advocates of the vaccine, will need clear communications regarding the safety of the vaccine for this age group, I think that is reasonable. When communications become confused it becomes a huge source of anxiety. I guess it doesn’t help when children are exposed to the debates via the news and social media. As we have seen messages can be mixed and easily confused.

Ultimately, it all relies on an informed risk-based decision that has been reached in conjunction with the child. Having an open and honest discussion with a child about the individual and wider health implications of vaccines should address anxiety that arises.

Should a parent advocate of vaccines find their child fearful or anxious, it’s about unpicking those anxieties and addressing them. There is also a lot to be said for providing this particular age group with some ownership over decisions regarding their health.

The influence of the family sphere over the child’s attitude toward this subject will play a huge part, as will the influences of wider social groups such as friends and schools. Potentially, the problematic situation will be where a child wants the vaccine against the parents’ wishes and this disagreement becomes a factor within current or manifesting anxieties.

For all these are still very uncertain times, it is important to remember that children being in school is good for their mental health.

While many may disagree, being in work (good work) is actually good for us and important for our mental health - the challenge, the social aspects, the routine. This is the same for children. Aside to the education argument, it is the wider social and emotional intelligence that children develop when they are in school - dealing with difficult situations, problem-solving, experiencing emotions, challenging themselves. All these are critical experiences for their future.

There has now been a number of start and stops to children’s education and routine. Having had long periods potentially at home will undoubtedly cause some degree of separation anxiety. We all have, to some degree, gone through a period of isolation to then find ourselves in larger and nosier environments. For many, this is a source of social anxiety and is highly likely to be the same with children who have become more and more isolated.

On the other hand, children surprise us all the time. My own son, for example, just ‘had enough’ of the worry and stress and just wanted to go to school, and he took the leap. We encouraged him to take control of the situation rather than let it control him.

Ultimately, I think the key messages to these issues are open and honest communication, support, trust and empowerment.

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