4 Things Parents Can Expect From Their Kids When They Go Back to School During the Pandemic

Parents are already well aware that the 2020-2021 school year will look a lot different in terms of health and safety precautions. But here are the mental and emotional challenges experts say kids might be dealing with, plus ways to help them cope.

For many parents, educators, and students, the only certainty about the upcoming 2020-2021 school year is that it's bound to be riddled with unknowns. Everyone hopes certain health and safety precautions will be implemented in communities where kids are heading back to in-person learning. But while less is known about changes related to studying, socializing, and sports, it's abundantly clear that they won't look the way they did at the start of the previous school year.

As the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) points out, school communities will need to address how kids are feeling about everything from having to play catch-up with their schoolwork to being required to physically distance, wear a mask, or go virtual during just about any academic or extracurricular activity.

"This is the first time kids are going back to an environment they know well, but that is going to feel very different," says Niro Feliciano, LCSW, a psychotherapist and anxiety specialist in Wilton, Connecticut.

Experts break down the mental, emotional, and social challenges that parents can expect their kids to face when they go back to school—as well as ways to look out for their overall well-being.

Anxiety Over Falling Behind Academically

When the pandemic hit, schools had to quickly pivot to online learning. "Many kids will have had more 'slippage' in their learning than others," says Irene Little, Psy.D., family therapist and director of Access Counseling Group, a rehab facility for teens and young adults in Frisco, Texas. "Some may not have learned their previous curriculum due to parents not being willing or able to provide the education to their children at the end of the year. The disparity between each kids with their learning will be overwhelming. For kids who already struggled, this will have an impact on their self-esteem."

Worry About Having a Set Routine

Dr. Little explains that children in grades K-5 might have trouble getting back to a routine that involves more structure and time away from parents. "There may be some new separation anxiety that we have not seen previously," she explains. "It will also be challenging to get back into a routine that they have not had for so long. This can cause emotional dysregulation, pushback, anxiety, and frustration for some."

Meanwhile, teens might struggle to get up on time for school and sit and focus for the duration of a school day. "A lot of students found that when they homeschooled they were able to complete their requirements in a few hours a day instead of a full day, so focusing for a longer period of time will be challenging," says Dr. Little.

Stress With Virtual Learning

For those students who will remain learning in a virtual environment, there are also a variety of emotions likely at play, acknowledges Erin McClintock, M.Ed., head of impact for social and emotional learning at education technology company EVERFI. "For many, they may feel sadness or frustration that their 'temporary' virtual learning has now become permanent this year," she says. "They may miss spending time with friends, socializing in person, or being in a school environment."

Grief or Fear About Extracurriculars

McClintock points out that kids, especially middle and high school students, could experience anxiety, sadness, mourning or grief over lost experiences and rites of passage, like sports seasons or extracurricular activities being cancelled.

But other children whose seasons or activities have not been canceled may experience the opposite. "They may be feeling increased anxiety or concern around being in close proximity to others or contending with adjustment to new safety precautions," says McClintock. This could also be the case when it comes to school transportation.

How Parents Can Help Ease Kids' Fears

Make time for mental health check-ins: Dr. Little encourages parents to carve out time every day to ask kids questions like: "'What did you experience today?" "How did that make you feel?" and "What do you think could make this better for you?"

"Parents can use that time to give feedback after hearing their child's responses such as, 'I think you have some great ideas—I might have handled it this way' or 'I hadn't thought about that, you have some great insight,'" shares Dr. Little. She also suggests playing a game called Feelings Jenga, which entails writing a question or feeling on each Jenga block. Then, when players pull a block out, they have to answer the question or talk about a time they experienced the emotion shown on the block. "Kids of all ages love this game," says Dr. Little.

Liesl Ulrich, founder of Ever Widening Circles Education (EWCed), a multimedia learning platform for 6th through 12th graders, suggests giving kids space to ask questions, as well. "Try and truly listen, understand, and hear the perspective of the child when answering their questions," she says. "Also, very often there are things kids won’t directly say out loud—anxious thoughts about going back to school, wondering what’s going to change, etc. It's essential to have regular question and answer sessions to address the thoughts/fears/emotions they have going on."

Prepare for anxiety-causing moments: Whether kids are concerned about taking school transportation or hitting the soccer field this fall, McClintock suggests helping to prepare them in advance. This can include drawing a picture of what new seating arrangements will look like on a school bus and doing a "trial run" where you practice getting ready, leaving the house, and taking a new route. "By addressing changes in an open and authentic way and discussing what they will look like, you can help prepare your child to face them feeling empowered and confident," says McClintock.

Build in breaks: Whether they're getting a breather from intense academics in the classroom or online, it's important to encourage kids to take time-outs for their physical and mental health, says Anandhi Narasimhan, M.D., a child/adolescent psychiatrist in Los Angeles, California. "It is important that children get some fresh air," she says. "Taking walks with your child before or after school (preferably both) can be beneficial for the whole family. It gives all of you exercise, and time to connect without electronics being in the way."

Normalize their experience: When it comes to academic anxiety, it's important to help your kid with perspective. "Remind them that they are in the same situation that their peers are and that they can and will do great," says Dr. Little. "And help with celebrating when your child accomplishes small goals to help with motivation and momentum."

The same goes for parents of older kids. Ulrich encourages parents to let kids of all ages know their feelings are valid and their anxiety is normal. "Help them understand that their grades are really important, but these are abnormal times," she says. "Remind them that if their grades are suffering and they’re worried, educators and peers are bound to be more supportive than normal."

Urge them to look at the bright side: Parents can support their kids who are disappointed, frustrated, or otherwise feeling the loss of social activities by helping them focus on what they can do instead of can't, says Feliciano. "Reminding them of moments they have enjoyed can be very helpful," she says.

Make it easy for them to stay connected: Parents who are grieving a favorite sport or extracurricular can support their practice at home, encouraging them to connect with a team via Zoom calls or similar, or stay engaged in another way that aligns with distancing measures, says McClintock.

The Bottom Line

There's no denying children will have concerns and fears over the upcoming school year—especially since it's so unclear what it will look like. Whether that means stress over more virtual learning, fear of falling behind, or being nervous about engaging in extracurriculars, parents can help their kids through their mental and emotional challenges.

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