7 Tips for Managing Students’ Back-to-School Anxiety
7 Tips for Managing Students’ Back-to-School Anxiety
For some students, back-to-school in 2021 may be the first time they have physically been in class in well over a year. During that time away, students have had vastly different at-home experiences which have potentially impacted their mental health. Some children have been waiting excitedly for this day (as have their caregivers!) and will fall into in-person school like they’d never left. For others, however, school will bring a new host of anxieties. They may directly fear exposure to illness or have separation anxiety from their families. For students with social-emotional delays or learning disabilities, at-home learning may have relieved them of social and academic pressures, resulting in a new “fear of normal” about facing those pressures again.
How can teachers and librarians best prepare for the wide range of anxieties a return to school may bring?
1. Self-Care and Role Modeling
Shouldering the needs of your students over the past year has likely impacted you emotionally as well, and you will need a new stamina to readjust to the old normal. Be kind to yourself and be careful to say no and not over-extend. This may model good boundary setting and coping skills for your students, whose mirror neurons in their brains literally watch how you respond emotionally and behaviorally and mimic what they see. Showing students your calm demeanor and sharing stories of how you coped with your fears over the last year can impact your students’ responses to their own worries. But also remember to role model laughter! In addition to helping form closer bonds with students, laughter creates dopamine which reduces stress and increases a child’s ability to pay attention.
2. Understanding Anxiety
True anxiety goes beyond just the occasional worry or fear and can be quite impairing on life’s daily activities. It may present as generalized worry about lots of things or as a fear of a specific thing (illness, school, reading, socializing). In an anxious state, the brain sends error messages to the child that they are facing danger where there is none. This can trigger a chronic fight, flight, or freeze response which becomes very tiring, mentally and physically, for the child. They may have difficulties sustaining attention, transitioning activities, or completing work and will frequently seek out assurances. The go-to response for an anxious child is typically to avoid the feared object or situation—flight or freeze. But they may fight instead with acting-out behaviors that may not look at first glance like anxiety. Backed into a corner, this anxiety may manifest in children who make jokes at the wrong moment, cannot stomach criticism, argue back and emotionally dysregulate. Responding compassionately and quietly with alternate coping choices will go much farther than the intuitive response to punish bad behavior. While consequence-driven discipline may work for children without anxiety, it may simply escalate the difficult behavior in an anxious one.
3. Discourage Avoidance
Caregivers may have a very difficult time getting anxious students to school. Some may enable the child’s avoidance, implicitly or explicitly, by worrying along with them or allowing them to stay home. Try to work with parents and caregivers to discourage school avoidance, which will only reinforce fears that school is, in fact, a scary place. These students may need a slow re-entry, shortened days, reduced homework, counselor check-ins, and a facilitation of small group or one-on-one social experiences. And they’ll need a lot of compassion—anxiety is not something they can easily control, as their brain’s fear center has taken over.
4. Empower Your Students
Anxious children have a tendency to seek reassurances, but a blanket “everything is fine” response only leaves them feeling unheard. Solving the specific fear for them also reinforces that this is something only an adult can protect them from. Acknowledge how difficult uncertainty can be but empower the student to find ways to cope by asking what they could do to soothe themselves in that moment. This will empower them to use critical thinking skills and solve their own problems—which will naturally help to reduce future anxiety. For young children, work with the parents and caregivers to come up with a list of possible coping tools and offer reminders to your younger students, while being careful not to solve it for them.
5. Specific Tools
Mindfulness, physical activity, and social connections can benefit all students by increasing positive neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin, which help students to relax, trust, focus, and have a general sense of well-being. These activities also help to decrease the stress hormone cortisol. A class mindfulness practice can be as simple as taking a moment to collectively pause and breathe, or to ask students what their five senses notice during a quiet moment. Simple yoga stretches or jumping in place can provide great re-sets for the brain. Research indicates that social connection is as important to human health as eating well, exercise, and sleeping—so after a year of being apart, fostering connections will be an important focus. Yet, it is quality over quantity that matters, and so for those students who may struggle with peer connections, one friend or even a trusted connection with an adult at school could make all the positive difference.
6. Praise Often and A Lot!
Behavior is shaped far more efficiently by praise and rewards than by criticism, so remember to tell the anxious student how proud you are that they came to school, found ways to solve their problems and soothed their fears. Parents and caregivers may need school collaboration to develop an incentive/reward system to encourage school attendance and the independent use of new coping skills throughout the day, as well as the student’s efforts to stay on task.
7. Use Books!
Research shows that reading or listening to a story evokes the same learning and language processing in the brain and emotions as actually experiencing it. Stories that feature characters coping with worry can often validate a student’s internal experiences and help them to feel less isolated. Capstone books such as Christianne Jones’s Donut Worry is a return-to-school specific story that can be a non-threatening way to foster discussions about emotions and situations without the child becoming defensive or feeling shame. Katy Hudson’s Mindful Mr. Sloth offers specific tools for managing stressful moments in an engaging and approachable way. For other helpful titles, check www.ANovelMind.com for a searchable list of 1000+ children’s books that deal with mental health and neurodiversity issues or Capstone’s Social and Emotional Learning booklist.
Children are resilient. It’s very likely that after a short time, school anxiety that did not exist before the pandemic will resolve itself. The more students feel your grounded, relaxed manner and know you are a safe, trustworthy harbor, the quicker this adjustment back to the old normal will happen.
About the Author
Merriam Sarcia Saunders is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works with children and adults in a variety of settings, including private practice, school counseling, and autism case management. Merriam is the author of the picture books My Whirling, Twirling Motor and My Wandering, Dreaming Mind, and the novel Trouble With A Tiny t, all affirming stories about children with ADHD. She became a psychotherapist because she wanted to help kids and grownups with ADHD and Autism. She loves to write kids’ book for the same reason! Merriam and her husband live in Northern California with their three kids who are big now, one silly lab and a tiny Chihuahua with no teeth. www.merriamsaunders.com