Back To School Anxiety: How To Prepare Your Child For Returning To School During Covid-19

Discussions about returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic often revolve around helping children (and their families) stay physically healthy while participating in classroom learning. For many kids, however, the mental health implications of going back to school are equally challenging. Though some children eagerly anticipate seeing their friends again, others are experiencing profound anxiety about how their lives will change this September. They may be worried about getting sick or making their loved ones sick, especially if their parents are still working from home to avoid catching the virus. For kids with learning difficulties, going back to school might mean giving up the individualized support they’ve come to rely on at home or enduring a learning environment that feels overwhelming. Resuming school also represents another major shift in routine after half a year of unpredictable upheaval, which is enough to induce anxiety even in mentally healthy, resilient children.



6 Parenting Strategies to Prepare Kids for School


In the weeks leading up to the fall semester, you can help your child manage their fears by providing opportunities for them to adjust to living in the “new normal.” The transition back to school will be much less jarring for your child if restrictions on their activities are eased gradually (rather than all at once), and if they are given the chance to bring their cognitive and social skills back up to speed. You can also increase your child’s comfort level by talking to them about the pandemic and managing your own concerns in a calm, measured way. Below, we’ll share six parenting strategies you can use to get your child mentally and emotionally ready to go back to school during the COVID-19 outbreak:



Safely expand your child’s social circle.


Allowing your child to interact with others “face to face” in the weeks leading up to school serves two important functions: First, it will help your child become more confident about the safety of in-person socialization. Second, it will give them a chance to catch up on some of the social development they’ve missed. School-aged children need real-time peer interaction to develop skills like sharing, empathy, cooperation, and the ability to pick up on non-verbal cues.


To get your child used to socializing again, start by taking them along on family outings; e.g., eating out at restaurants, seeing movies, or visiting the park. This will allow your child to observe other people comfortably interacting in groups and get them used to going out in public more often. Then, consult your province or state’s public health guidelines for information on how you can safely conduct playdates and small gatherings. In Ontario, for example, it’s permissible to form a social bubble of up to ten people who can interact without any physical distancing.


If possible, try to include your child’s closest friends in your social bubble so you can safely arrange weekly playdates. During these playdates, suggest activities that will strengthen key social skills, like sharing and cooperation, to help your child catch up. Playing board games, for instance, is a great way to teach kids how to take turns, while hosting scavenger hunts can hone their teamwork skills.



Incrementally reduce your child’s screen time.


In most households, increased screen time became a necessary evil after the COVID-19 outbreak began. Between virtual lessons and online playdates – and keeping kids entertained while parents work from home – pre-pandemic efforts to limit kids’ daily screen time to two hours or less have largely been set aside.


Though devices have been a helpful resource for families during the pandemic, it’s important to remember that the negative effects of screen time haven’t gone away. Too much screen time has been linked to attentional difficulties, which is particularly problematic right now, as a prolonged lack of structure has already reduced many children’s executive functioning skills. Using backlit devices during the evening also disrupts the body’s normal sleep-wake rhythm, making it harder for kids to get the rest they need to function well at school. Parents should therefore gradually reduce their children’s use of screens in increments of 15 minutes per day until reaching normal levels again.


Try to replace excess screen time with real-world activities, especially outdoor physical activity. Recent studies have shown that exercising outdoors is associated with improvements in attention span and better sleep quality.



Work on your child’s ability to focus and stay organized.


Though parents have done their best to keep their kids’ normal routine intact during the pandemic, disruptions are an unavoidable element of the home environment. Between parents having to multitask, the presence of siblings, and the availability of distractions, at-home education has been a chaotic experience for many families. As a result, your child’s ability to focus and stay organized has probably suffered over the past few months. This is especially likely to be the case if your child already has attentional issues due to ADHD or another learning or developmental disorder.


To make going back to school less challenging for your child, help them rebuild their executive functioning skills before returning back to school. In addition to limiting screen time and promoting physical activity, you can try playing games that promote concentration, planning, and the use of working memory. For older kids, crossword and jigsaw puzzles are a good choice, while younger children often benefit from playing with building blocks and solving picture puzzles. Memory and attention training exercises are especially important during these few weeks before your child goes back to school.




Working Memory and Attention Training

During the COVID-19 lockdown children’s attention and executive function skills have been severely weakened by the lack of activities requiring personal engagement and routine. Going back to school in September is going to be a great challenge for many kids. Get your child’s working memory and attention back in shape with Cogmed training.

  1. We are offering $100 back-to-school discount on Cogmed (for training course started during Aug 1-30)
  2. Cogmed training is a psychological service and the costs may be covered by extended health insurance plans

For information about Cogmed training offered by our center please visit “Memory Training” page. 

To get your child into the habit of being organized, have them perform their normal school routine each day; i.e., getting up at a specific time, getting dressed, and packing their knapsack.



Reassure your child that it’s safe to return to school.


Most kids will wonder why it’s suddenly okay to go back to school, after being told they had to stay home in the spring. Even if your child doesn’t openly ask questions about this decision, it’s a good idea to walk them through the reasons why school attendance is no longer deemed unacceptably risky. Tell your child that experts understand the virus situation is much better now, so they know how to limit transmission with specific strategies, like reducing class sizes, monitoring students for signs of illness, and encouraging good hygiene. You should also remind your child that children rarely experience serious COVID-19 symptoms, so it’s very unlikely that they’ll get sick.



Take steps to reduce your own anxiety.


When making any decision in life, we must weigh the possible consequences of our choice with the rewards. Though it’s natural to worry about your child getting sick, most experts agree that the risks of continued school closure are greater than the risks posed by COVID-19. Long periods of school closure are strongly associated with learning loss, which could adversely affect your child’s educational and professional performance many years into the future. The isolation children have experienced during the pandemic has been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety, and if it’s continued, it could cause many kids to miss essential developmental milestones. Furthermore, children with special learning and behavioural needs rely heavily on school-based programs for support. Keeping schools closed would put these kids at an increased risk of experiencing severe social and emotional problems.


By keeping the risks of COVID-19 in perspective, you’ll reduce your own anxiety levels and help your child feel more relaxed. When your child sees that you aren’t worried about him/ her going back to school, they’ll realize they don’t have anything to worry about, either.



Consider additional support, if needed.


Kids with special needs have been particularly hard-hit by this year’s extended period of educational disruption. If your child has special needs, you should talk to their teacher ahead of time about implementing supports that will help them transition comfortably back into the old routine. Your child may benefit from trying half-days initially or being exempt from homework, for instance. You can also mention any learning strategies that you found to be particularly effective when you were teaching your child at home (e.g., did being able to take more frequent breaks help your child stay focused?)


Working closely with an experienced therapist is another important step in preparing your special needs child for school. Specific interventions, like speech and behavioural therapy, may be needed to prevent social skill loss and help your child cope.


Even kids without special needs may need a bit of extra care as they get used to attending school again. Your child has become accustomed to being with you (and receiving your help with schoolwork), so you should plan to spend extra time with them at the end of the day after they resume school. Make a point of discussing the day, and ask if they need assistance with homework.


Though the COVID-19 outbreak has been especially challenging for families, the good news is that kids are incredibly resilient. As long as children have the safety and security of loving parents, research has shown that they can bounce back from even very difficult events. Your child’s upbringing may have been irreversibly altered by COVID-19, but with your help, they’ll become a more confident, resourceful person as a result of this experience.