Tips for easing back to school anxiety in 2020

Each September children across the UK return to school with a mix of excitement and nervousness – and no more so than this year. Schools preparing to receive their new pupils have put into place robust safety measures to reduce the risk of your children catching Covid-19. And while these measures are important, they can make life a little harder for kids returning to school.

Children like to have routines (even if they complain about them). New, complex changes to their school situation can cause extra worries about returning to the classroom, compounded by the last few months of life under lockdown where ‘normality’ was temporarily suspended.

It’s likely that your child will be feeling some additional nervousness this year as they prepare to go back to school, just as adults all over the country have felt trepidation as they return to work. But with the right communication, routines and support, you can make sure your child feels confident about arriving back in the classroom.

What are the signs of anxiety in children?

First, it’s important to know the signs of anxiety or ‘extra’ nervousness in your child. Sometimes, children can find it hard to express how they are feeling, so paying attention to their behaviour can help you establish whether they may be struggling without having to ask them directly.

The signs of anxiousness in children are similar to those in adults, and can include:

  • Difficulty sleeping or changes in how they sleep – for example, getting up in the night
  • Difficulty concentrating, staying still or resting
  • ‘Avoidance behaviour’ where they will say things or behave in certain ways to avoid school-related conversations or activities
  • More intense emotional states, where they are quicker to react, get angry or get upset
  • Headaches or stomach aches without a clear physical cause

Because of these sensations, you may find your child also seems withdrawn. Anxiety can cause hyper-sensitivity, where everything feels a bit ‘too much’, and some children may withdraw from everyday activities to cope with this feeling. Alternatively, you may find your child is doing even more than usual in an almost frantic or ‘hurried’ way.

What’s important here is that you pay attention to any changes in your child’s behaviour that seem out of the ordinary, as these can indicate undue stress, anxiety or concern over going back to school.

How to talk to your child about their back-to-school anxiety

With these indicators in mind, approach your child to start talking to them about how they’re feeling. It can be tempting to say things like “Don’t worry” or “It won’t be that bad” in a bid to assuage your child’s worries and reduce their fears. But to your child, this won’t sound comforting; it will sound dismissive, or that you’re not really hearing how they feel.

Instead, let your child talk about their feelings and listen attentively. Often a lot can be solved by your child just expressing how they feel and knowing that someone is there for them.

Often, starting the conversation about back to school nerves or coronavirus-induced anxiety can feel unnatural. One useful tip is having the conversation side-by-side, rather than face-to-face; for example, when you’re going for a walk or washing up together. This can feel less confrontational for your child – and you.

You can also start the conversation by sharing your own feelings about back-to-school as a way to show them it’s safe to talk. For example, you might say “I’d like to chat with you about going back to school. I’m feeling a bit nervous about it because it’s going to be different than usual. What do you feel about it?”.

Depending on the age of your child, you could even make this into a game, alternating sentences starting with “I’m worried about …” and those starting with “I’m excited about …” to help them open up and communicate their feelings.

You can also use the school’s guidance as a starting point for conversations. This will make sure your child knows what to expect as well as helping you start talking without making it too personal. And if your child is struggling to put their thoughts into words, consider using drawing, painting or even play-acting to help them communicate.

Techniques for soothing anxious children

If you recognise your child is feeling particularly anxious, you can help them by sharing grounding and soothing practices that bring them back to the moment and help them feel comforted. Some of these are very simple, such as washing their new school uniform before they wear it so it smells familiar or adding an uplifting note into their lunch box. Other practices are best introduced when your child is feeling calm, helping them create a ‘toolkit’ of processes they can use whenever they feel worried. Here are some examples.

  • Box breathing

Breathe in for a count of four, hold for four, breathe out for four then hold for four. Younger children can trace their finger round a square while doing this while children struggling with pace can use animations or the ticks of a clock to help them.

  • Meditation

Even children can learn to meditate, and they don’t have to do it for very long to feel the benefit. Apps like Headspace or Calm are useful in sharing techniques, or simply set a timer and sit with your child quietly for a few minutes, asking them to focus on their breathing.

  • Present awareness

A useful way to bring children back into the present moment when they’re feeling anxious is to get them to focus on a specific thing. This might be the sensation of their feet on the floor; the sounds they can hear; how their clothes feel on their body; what they can smell.

  • Keeping a diary

Keeping a diary – or reflective writing – is an excellent way for children to process how they are feeling. Encourage them to write down their thoughts each evening using some simple prompts: what did they do in the day? What things happened? How did they feel about them? Writing about their experience helps them ‘sort out’ their thoughts and can even provide starting points for future conversations.

In conclusion

As our day-to-day activities transition to life after Covid-19, we can all feel a little nervous about what’s coming next. For children, who may not have the skills or resilience yet to deal with big changes, these nerves can compound existing worries about going back to school. But with someone to talk to and a toolkit to help them feel grounded, you can help your child navigate these uncertain times with strength.