Back to school anxiety: Start prepping kids for return to in-person learning weeks in advance, experts say

Kids are going to have a lot of questions, and it’s important for parents to keep calm so children feel secure, an expert said

Parents can ease children’s transition to in-person learning after months of virtual schooling, depending on the district, through clear talks over safety guidelines, structured sleep schedules, validating worries and addressing grief after a tumultuous year, experts told Fox News.

CLICK HERE TO FIND A COVID-19 VACCINE NEAR YOU

Kids are going to have a lot of questions, and it’s important for parents to keep calm so children feel secure, Dr. Carmen Lopez-Arvizu, medical director of the psychiatric mental health clinic at Kennedy Krieger, told Fox News.

"Children are going to be worried, they’re probably going to have some difficulty going to sleep in the days before school," she said.

To help facilitate the transition back to school this fall, parents should first inform themselves of school districts' COVID-related safety guidelines and then begin to prepare the child weeks ahead of the new school year.

"The parent has to be very aware, that however they transmit this information to the child affects how the child responds to it," Lopez-Arvizu said. "The parent has to be calm, manage their stress and their own worries about the transition."

Virtual schooling likely shifted kids’ sleep schedules, and two weeks ahead of the new school year, parents should scale back children's schedules by about 15-20 minutes, said Dr. Mary Alvord, Ph.D., co-author and practicing psychologist in Maryland, who notes sleep is critical for regulating mood and behavior, learning and clear thinking.

PARENTS OF VIRTUAL LEARNERS SAY THEIR KIDS HAVE WORSE MENTAL HEALTH, LESS TIME OUTSIDE, CDC SURVEY FINDS

Alvord said parents should then talk to children about the transition to ease into a new school, grade or building, and suggested taking the planned bus route or visiting the campus so the child has some exposure before the first day of school. If the child has a group of friends, it can make the first week easier, she added, suggesting parents arrange distanced hangouts to encourage friendships ahead of the school year.

"There’s been so much uncertainty and change, and uncertainty drives anxiety," Alvord continued, advising parents communicate that they have their child’s safety in mind, and should COVID-related guidance evolve, parents will communicate any changes to children.

Experts note it’s important to discuss grief associated with the pandemic, whether it was the loss of a family member or missed educational and social opportunities, as the pandemic also disrupted the normal grieving process, with patients isolated in hospitals and funeral arrangements impacted by health and safety measures.

"Parents need to acknowledge the losses," Alvord said.

The experts' anecdotal evidence with pediatric patients suggests mixed attitudes regarding the return to in-person schooling; while some have anxiety, many kids are excited to see friends and return to some sense of normalcy. While a certain degree of anxiety is normal, parents should contact a primary care provider if they sense a child's sadness and anxiety exceeds expected behavior, and signs can include withdrawal from friends and family, constant crying and eating too much or too little. In these instances, don't hesitate to contact a provider or trusted support system for help, Lopez-Arvizu said.

CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE

Finally, validate children’s feelings and worries, and then work together to problem solve the issue, Alvord said, noting that parents can build resiliency in children by encouraging positive attitudes and focusing on what’s in control. 

"We are all resilient in so many ways, we can focus on the things we can control and can do something about," Alvord said. "Our belief that we can handle things and problem solve and figure things out is really important," advising to tell kids, "We’re not helpless, we can do something, we just have to be thoughtful about what we do."