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Roots and Wings: Helping Our Kids Through School-Based Anxiety

By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.

Squeaky clean shoes, new clothes to wear, a backpack filled with sharpened pencils, and a lunch box with a picture of a favorite character — all ready for the first day of school. Some things never change, including the excitement and anticipation of the first day of school for many young children. That excitement may also be accompanied by some nervousness: Will I like my teacher(s)? Will I have someone to sit with at lunch? Will I get on the right bus? All these questions are normal and expected. 

For the 2021-2022 school year in particular, children (and their parents) know that there will be continual changes as schools struggle to meet the challenges necessitated by both our recent emergence from the restrictions of the pandemic and the evaluation of that emergence due to virus variants. Thanks to the vaccine, children are more likely to learn in-person, but how they will experience that setting (and how long it will last) will vary from state to state and school to school. 

As a result of many months (even a whole year) outside the physical classroom, many children may become anxious about what their “new normal” will look like. Being anxious means “experiencing pain or uneasiness concerning something unknown or in the future.” How anxiety manifests itself can occur in many ways from physical reactions such as sweating, heart racing, and feeling jittery, to emotional/behavioral reactions such as crying, shutting down, and yelling. 

How can we, as parents and grandparents, help our loved ones deal with the anxiety they may be feeling as they begin the new school year? First and foremost, find out as much as possible about how your child’s school experience will be similar or different than in the past (during COVID and before COVID). 

  • Recognize the signs that your child is experiencing anxiety (changes in behavior and demeanor when the topic of school is raised) 
  • Identify triggers that may cause anxiety (buying new clothes or a new backpack, talking with a friend) 
  • Identify the thought that may cause the anxious feeling (suppose I don’t have anyone to sit with at lunch) 
  • Help them name their emotions (role model this coping skill by naming your own feelings) 
  • Encourage exercise and healthy eating habits 
  • Practice deep breathing exercises  
  • Show affectionate communication (physical touch or sharing a story of a time when you felt anxious) 
  • Once school starts, ask questions such as: How is this year different than other years? How is it the same? 
  • Point out the possible silver linings for the upcoming school year such as more outside recess time, meeting new friends, etc. 
  • Role play responses to situations that you think may trigger anxiety 

The two most important things to remember and practice as we help our children navigate their “new normal” of school experiences and minimize the anxiety they may face: 

  1. Anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing even though it may cause unpleasantness. Anxiety can remind you to prepare for future experiences and help you make decisions about the risks that you take. 
  2. Stay calm as you work with your child to help them develop coping skills. Remember, calm can be contagious. 

Susan Kurlander

 

Susan Kurlander, M.Ed. is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services 

JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200. 

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