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Back-to-school fears are real. Help your children combat them.

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Remember all the fun and excitement of heading back to school? Seeing friends, meeting teachers, showing off the new wardrobe.

This fall COVID-19 anxieties may be smothering the good feelings your kids have about returning to school, but there are ways parents can ease back-to-school fears.

Vanessa Shrontz, a preschool master teacher at the A. Sophie Rogers School for Early Learning within the Schoenbaum Family Center, and Keeley Pratt, associate professor in Ohio State’s Department of Human Sciences, offered strategies to help you support the students in your house as they go back to school.

  1. Stay calm.

    Regardless of what age your children are, you set the tone.

    “If you’re freaking out, your children will freak out,” Shrontz said. “I know it’s easier said than done, but staying calm is important. How you are reacting really shapes a child’s reactions.”

    Shrontz recommends regular deep breathing exercises: Breathe in four seconds; pause four seconds; breathe out four seconds; pause four seconds. It’s a technique she uses at regular times throughout a school day for herself and her students to keep stress levels down.

  2. Know your school’s policies and resources.

    Parents should know updated school resources and policies before the year starts. And don’t be afraid to reach out to the school if you have concerns, Pratt said.

    Also, double-check that you have updated personal contact information registered with your school, such as your email and phone number, so the school can communicate updates related to COVID-19. This gives you a chance to talk through the policies or changes your child might be seeing and hearing at school.

  1. Monitor what they’re hearing.

    Children are sponges, Pratt said, so parents and adult caregivers should be mindful of that.

    “It is important for children to hear that ‘everyone is working hard to be safe’ and ‘adults are keeping you safe,’” she said. “Additionally, it may be helpful to limit children’s exposure to media if they are exposed to news about COVID-19.”

    Whether it’s a preschooler overhearing tidbits of a frightening news report or a teenager flipping through social media comments, you should help them cut through the negative noise that promotes anxiety. Speaking to children and teens to help them fully understand all the facts, rather than all the fears, along with what schools are doing to prepare for their return can go a long way in easing fears.

    “Children hear everything,” Shrontz said. “Pretending they don’t need to know information isn’t a good idea; they need to know. You know their maturity level; you should be having those honest conversations with them.”

  2. Speaking of conversations…

    Ask them what concerns or fears they have. Then, normalize and validate what you’re hearing. “If children voice specific worries or are reluctant to talk about going back to school, it is important for parents to reassure their children that it is OK to feel worried,” Pratt said. “Talk about how wearing masks, distancing, etc., are so we can all work together to keep everyone healthy and well. “Also, problem-solve through any specific concerns children may have about specific situations they may worry about. Create a specific plan for those situations.”

  3. Conversations should include normalizing health guidelines.

    While older children and teenagers get the finer points of good hygiene and how it combats the virus, little ones don’t necessarily comprehend abstract thinking.

    “Little people are black-and-white thinkers,” Shrontz said. “They need very factual information. It doesn’t need to be so detailed that it scares them, but teaching the proper way to wash hands, why we’re encouraging physical distancing, makes it understandable and normalizes it for them.

    “Explain that some people are going to get sick, but we’re going to do our part to make sure people stay healthy.”

Children hear everything. Pretending they don’t need to know information isn’t a good idea; they need to know. You know their maturity level; you should be having those honest conversations with them.”
Vanessa Shrontz, preschool master teacher, Schoenbaum Family Center at The Ohio State University
  1. Good habits at home will help you and your student.

    Setting a proper example and teaching good habits at home translates to good habits at school. Those habits can keep your child safe and give you some peace of mind as you send them out the door.

    “If parents are washing their hands at home, practicing social distancing, wearing masks, these are things children are going to do,” Shrontz said. “They’ll follow your example.

    “And if you make these practices part of their routine, you can trust they’ll do what you’ve instilled in them at school.”

  2. And routines build a sense of control.

    Pratt recommends helping children get accustomed to school routines weeks before returning to school. Set bed times, wake-up times and go through morning routines. You also can work through COVID-19 practices, such as talking through when they should be washing hands, using hand sanitizer and wearing masks.  

    “It is important to give children a sense of what they can control, like packing their own lunch, having their own hand sanitizer, picking out what mask they wear,” Pratt said. “Providing positive feedback when children practice safety measures at home or in public can also help them to feel more encouraged when practicing safety measures.”

    Parents also can check with schools to find out what the daily routine will be and help children understand what each day will look like and what changes they’ll experience at school. That includes when they’ll be wearing masks, when they’ll be outside playing, when they should wash their hands.

    Daily routines also can offset stress buildup.

    “When there’s structure and consistency, that helps them navigate those feelings,” Shrontz said. “There’s so much uncertainty, but my routine is something I can look forward to every day.”

    That routine may include after-school playtime or, for older children and teens, regular exercise or even reading a book that can be looked forward to each day.

    Still, stress happens.

  3. Look for signs of stress.

    These COVID-19 fears, at home and at school, can begin to wear on us all. And if your child isn’t coming right out and saying something is bothering them, or maybe they don’t exactly know it, there are signals you can look for, according to Pratt.

    Signs could include changes in play and normal interpersonal interactions, such as aggression or becoming withdrawn. Concerning signs for preschoolers could include:

    • excessive or new thumb sucking;
    • new bedwetting;
    • clinging to parents;
    • sleep disturbances;
    • appetite changes;
    • new fears; and
    • regression in behaviors.

    Pratt and Shrontz both recommend mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing, when you see signs of stress in children.

    However, if symptoms last more than two weeks, parents should seek professional help from a counselor or therapist. Your school or pediatrician is a good place to ask about mental health resources.