As families prepare for the start of the school year in August, many kids may struggle with anxiety about returning to the classroom.
Brittney Schrick, extension assistant professor and family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said it's important for parents to be patient with their children, help them process "big feelings," and get a head start on establishing routines.
For some children, back-to-school anxiety can manifest physically as trouble sleeping, stomach aches, headaches and getting easily upset. Schrick said that even for kids who enjoy school, "it's completely normal for them to be anxious about going back."
Most students will be in a new grade with a new classroom and teacher, and they won't know if some of their friends will be in their class. This uncertainty is often at the root of kids' anxiety.
Back-to-school anxiety may also "show up as preparation," Schrick said.
"You might have children who are really concerned about making sure they get their backpacks packed, or their school supplies purchased, and their names written on everything," she said. "If you've got a kid who's very organized like that, that's their way of controlling their anxiety. If they're super prepared, they're not going to be as worried about it."
The many disruptions caused by the covid-19 pandemic -- including inconsistent masking requirements, switches between remote and in-person learning, and frequent illnesses -- have only exacerbated back-to-school anxiety and delayed many students' social development, Schrick said.
"What we're seeing is a lot of kids are socially behind, regardless of how old they are," Schrick said. "Covid definitely disrupted the school environment, and kids need routine. They're not always sure what to expect, and not being sure what to expect is hard for kids, even all the way up through teenagers -- but especially for little kids."
Since covid cases are still high, Schrick said families will continue to see this disruption. She advises parents to be patient with their kids and ask questions to better understand their worries.
"Ask questions and don't assume that any sort of big feelings are intended to be disruptive or malicious or mean-spirited," Schrick said. "Because anxiety is hard, and it's especially hard for kids who don't have words for it or can't explain it. They're not going to come to you and say, 'Mom, I'm feeling really anxious about starting school.'"
"They might say, 'I don't want to go to school, I hate school!' or 'I'm not going to school.' They may say things like 'I don't think my friends like me,' or 'I don't want to be the only one wearing this shirt.' It could be anything," according to Schrick.
It's important to listen to children's answers, "instead of assuming you know why they're upset," Schrick said. By listening carefully, parents can help their kids process these feelings.
"I think a lot of times, parents just want compliance, and it can cause more problems than just taking a step back and asking, 'What's really going on here?'" said Schrick.
Some strategies for helping kids cope with anxiety include practicing deep breathing and taking time to help children ground themselves in the present moment. Prompting a child to pay attention to what he or she can see, hear, touch, and how their body feels can help kids calm down instead of worrying about the future. Schrick said visual aids, such as "feelings thermometers" where kids can visually relate their emotions to an illustrated facial expression or color scale, can also be helpful.
She said it's also important to get kids back to a normal bedtime and nightly routine. Getting a head start on this process is key.
"Don't wait until the day before school starts, because if you haven't been in a routine or if you've been letting kids stay up and sleep late, and all of a sudden you say, 'We're going back to 8:30 bedtime,' their bodies can't do that," Shrick said. "Take some time, preferably the week before school starts, to slowly get back into routines."
Start gradually by bumping bedtime back 10 minutes earlier, then 15 minutes earlier, to ease kids into the routine.
If a child continues to struggle severely with anxiety even after returning to their school routine, Schrick said it may be time to visit with their school counselor.
"If a kid's anxiety is so disruptive to their daily life that they can't function, even after they've been given time to adjust to a new situation, it would be worth starting at the school counselor level and then potentially seeking additional help if that level isn't sufficient," she said.
For more information about family life and relationships, visit extension's Personal and Family Wellbeing webpage at https://www.uaex.uada.edu/life-skills-wellness/personal-family-well-being/sun-safety.aspx.
To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact a local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu. Follow the agency on Twitter and Instagram at @AR_Extension.
Rebekah Hall is with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.