Kids Going Back to School? Here’s How to Get Them Mentally Prepared

Tips for easing back-to-school anxiety in the time of COVID-19
kids going back to school during covid

Whether your child is returning to school this fall in-person, online or a combination of the two, this back-to-school season is going to look and feel a whole lot different.

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Of course, you want the best for your child. So what can you do to set them up for success — even with all of the changes and uncertainties brought about by the coronavirus pandemic?

A good place to start is to take away some of the uncertainty for them by providing useful information in an age-appropriate manner, says Ethan Benore, PhD, Director of the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health. That means communicating clearly with them about what their schooling will be like and what rules they’re expected to follow.

This can look different depending on whether they’ll be doing virtual or classroom learning (or both), but Dr. Benore offers the following general pointers as guidance.

Start by informing yourself (and keeping your cool)

Right now is undoubtedly a stressful time for everyone, including you. “My heart goes out to all of the parents,” Dr. Benore says. “I’m a parent of school children as well, and it’s so tough because of the uncertainty.”

But remember, kids are just kids. They understand this whole situation even less than you do, so they look to adults (you) for a sense of security, he says. If you’re outwardly anxious or don’t seem to know what’s going on, that can be anxiety-provoking for children, too.

If you still have questions or concerns about what your child’s school reopening will look like, reach out to your school system. “They’ve had time now to do a lot of research and preparation, so they should be able to answer most of the questions you have,” Dr. Benore says.

And if you haven’t yet made a decision about what’s best for your child’s learning this fall, Dr. Benore recommends visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, where you’ll find a back-to-school decision-making checklist to help you think through the many considerations. The American Academy of Pediatrics also has a website for parents that may be helpful in making your decision.

Advertising Policy

Tell them a story

Young kids who are heading back to school in-person might best understand what’s going on if you can shape it into a concise narrative that explains what will be the same and what will be different. “For example, say, ‘You’ll be going to the same school and riding the same bus, and Jasmine will be on the bus with you just like before. But what’s different is you’ll be wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer, and your desk will be farther away from your classmates,’” Dr. Benore suggests.

Then, as your child pieces together the story in their own mind, they’ll come back to you with relevant questions.

Practice what’s expected of them

When you’re talking about the new rules of engagement at your child’s school, go over specifically what you expect your child to do. Make sure they know where, when and how they’re supposed to wear their mask. Demonstrate that and practice with them, using positive reinforcement when they do it properly.

The same thing goes with hand-washing. Watch a video online that shows the appropriate way to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or go to the sink and show them.

“You’ll know you’ve done a good job because your child will start catching you when you slip up as well,” Dr. Benore adds.

If your child is doing virtual learning, Dr. Benore recommends setting up a specific desk space at home that they will work from, so that it’s easy for them to shift to student mode (and for you to shift from parent to teacher mode). Determining set times for them to work may also help reduce conflict.

Exercise compassion

These are hard changes for kids, and they’re going to make mistakes. If your child runs up and embraces a friend on the first day of school, Dr. Benore recommends treating it as a teaching moment instead of penalizing them. Try to encourage replacement behaviors, such as air-high-fives or bumping elbows. “I think kids will start to develop their own kind of fun replacement behaviors so that they can have appropriate greetings with their friends,” he says.

Advertising Policy

Check in frequently – and not just at night

To make sure that your child is coping well with these changes, check in with them regularly about how school is going. Bedtime might feel like a natural time to do this, but Dr. Benore encourages having little talks throughout the day.

“I really encourage you to have these conversations earlier with your children so they can process any stress or emotions and end the day feeling much better,” he says.

When you check in, he recommends that you first listen to what they have to say without interrupting. Then, validate their emotions. For example, say,“I’m sorry that you’re feeling sad, angry or frustrated.” Then, offer reassurance and help them problem-solve on what they could do to help their situation get better, or what you’re going to in response to their concern.

Watch for red flags

How can you know if things aren’t going great with school? Stress and anxiety can manifest in any number of ways, so Dr. Benore recommends being on the lookout for these signs:

  1. More complaints of stomachaches and headaches: “These are often a sign that children are developing more stress,” Dr. Benore says.
  2. Changes in attitude: If you child is frequently irritable or cranky, or begins withdrawing into their bedroom often, this could indicate that they’re feeling stressed.
  3. Sudden changes in eating or sleeping habits: Of course, eating or sleeping more can be developmentally normal depending on the child’s age, but they could also be a response to stress.

Ultimately, you know your child, and if you see them acting in a way that’s outside of their normal, that’s a sign that something is going on under the surface, and it’s a good idea to open a conversation, Dr. Benore says.

Lastly, remember that this is a situation none of us have ever been in before, and there’s no perfect way to handle it. Try to approach the school year with an attitude of compassion and collaboration — with both your child and their school — knowing that everyone is doing their best in the current situation.

“We all are making accommodations and sacrifices to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but also to try to get back to as much normalcy as we can and facilitate the academic growth of our kids,” Dr. Benore says.

Advertising Policy