Navigating Back-to-School Anxiety During COVID-19

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Tips from ICAN staff to help make back-to-school easier on children AND adults

It is no surprise that we as a society are quickly approaching the often exciting, often dreaded, back-to-school season for children, parents, teachers, and individuals in higher education. With the global pandemic aside, back-to-school time is often very stressful for families and students. You’re faced with receiving school supply lists longer than your family of five’s weekly grocery list, navigating the aisles of Walmart searching for that all too specific green one-and-a-half inch binder with the matching folder for your kid’s science class, or locating bins that will fit your college student’s massive amount of clothing that she insists she must take to her 10x12 foot dorm room.

As a teacher, you’re stocking up on tissues, hand sanitizer, crayons, markers, and decorations for your classroom on a low budget, usually coming out of your own pocket, all so that your students start their school year off on a positive note. As students, you’re trying to find the perfect sneakers -- you know, those ones that light up with every step -- in your exact size, new backpacks and matching lunch boxes, and a wardrobe that shows the world just who you want to be this school year.

While we all have so many things to think about going into a brand new school year, now we must add a global health crisis to those worries. Remote learning? Hybrid classrooms? First-graders social distancing and keeping a mask on their face for more than three minutes? Zoom?! How will we ever juggle the natural chaos with this newfound way of sending our children off to receive an education? What does this mean for the jobs we must get back to in order to pay the bills and keep food on the table? For our college students who need the field hours, but aren’t allowed inside the building? 

While the community is in a state of unknowns full of constantly changing re-entry plans and anxiety, the one thing that we can count on is getting through this together. As a community, as an agency, and as a family. 

Here are some tips and things to keep in mind from our staff for reducing anxiety before heading back to school this fall:

Mindful Strategies for Parents

Kristen Rasmussen, MSW
Chief Operating Officer

As children prepare to return to some form of schooling in the near future there are many ways that we, as parents and caregivers can support them, but we have to remember to take care of ourselves first.

Model healthy coping strategies.
First and foremost, take good care of yourself! Take news and social media fasts, spend time outdoors, practice mindfulness, run, read, take a nap, go fishing, whatever works for you. Most importantly, remember to be gentle with yourself. Since March of 2020, we have all been catapulted into a new world of uncertainly and constant change. This experience has had a cascading effect on everyone’s well-being.

Make yourself available and be fully present
Keep the age appropriate dialog flowing. When talking through and exploring their worries, stressors and uncertainties take your individual child’s personality into consideration. Some children are really open, while others might be more cautious. Is your child an introvert or an extrovert, emotional or even -tempered? You get the picture. Just like us our responses through this process are all different and we need to meet all of our loved ones exactly where they’re at. 

Get back in the pre-Covid-19 groove
Get back into a normal sleep routine. I know in my own home, sleep routines turned upside down for our teenager. Get back to family supper schedules. Many folks have turned to comfort food through the pandemic. If this resonates with you, make some small shifts to bring in wholesome foods in the pantry and on the table.

Find the good stuff and lighten the load
These past six months have been very heavy for a myriad of reasons outside of the pandemic. It’s time to be a little lighter. Help your child find the positives in returning to school. Seeing their friends, meeting new friends and experiencing some sense of “normalcy”. Make a list of the good things that came out of this experience and hang it up where everyone can see it. It will be a visual reminder of our resilience and ability to find the goodness in the most challenging experiences. You might be surprised by what they identify as their bright side of this situation. 

Be silly and don’t take yourself so seriously. Research shows us that social and intellectual development in children can be enhanced and enriched when children are exposed to appropriate & regular uses of humor by parents, caregivers and teachers. Laughter is highly effective tension-breaker, a very therapeutic intervention and a wonderful way to stimulate conversation and closeness.

Adjust Expectations. Empathize. Model Resiliency.

Rebecca Paladino, LMSW
Director of Children’s Clinical Services

“Many children are likely to be experiencing anxiety, sadness, fear and behavioral challenges during this time of uncertainty. We need to remember that when school closed in March, the children no longer had that sense of structure and stimulation that was provided by the school environment. With many children re-entering school, we must be mindful to adjust expectations, empathize with their feelings and model resilient behavior. Developing resilience will help the children cope adaptively and bounce back after changes, challenges, setbacks and disappointments, and move forward successfully in all environments.” 


  • Adjust expectations by allowing your child extra time to decompress in the middle of the day

  • Empathize and validate your child’s feelings, even when they come out in the wrong way

  • Model resilient behavior by reassuring your child that you feel overwhelmed too, but as a family, you’ll get through this together. 

Helping Children Adapt to Change

Carrie Conte, LCSW
Community Initiatives/School Based Services Program Manager

“We need to be mindful in regard to each individual student’s ability to adapt to change. If a student is struggling to follow the mask requirements, we need to focus on ‘What happened?’ Perhaps they have sensory issues or a severe trauma history, and wearing a mask is a trigger. In school, we can create opportunities for positive mask experiences. Maybe we provide masks they can decorate on the first day to increase buy-in, individuality and responsibility. We can find ways to increase their tolerance by not engaging in power struggles when a student is struggling to wear a mask all day. We need to remember as adults it is hard for us too. If we look at this from a strengths-based perspective, it can allow for more creative ways we can help. We champion the times they are able to wear the mask, provide positive reinforcement. Remember, children learn from experience and role modeling. Ann Wojcicki reminds us “The reality is that the only way change comes is when you lead by example.” 

Technology Tips

La-Meek White
IT Coordinator

“One of the most important pieces of advice I can give to parents is that modern problems require modern solutions, and nine times out of ten, your children will know what to do. Try not to have too many devices streaming Netflix while they’re on Zoom meetings, and PLEASE, do not touch the router. If teachers don’t require cameras then it would be best to turn them off. If your computer is set to update automatically make sure it’s updated before class is scheduled to avoid any random disconnections. DON’T STRESS! If you’re able to, you may need to up your internet speeds if you and your child are experiencing slower Zoom calls. The higher MBPS (megabits per second), the better. I would recommend anywhere between 100 mpbs and 400 MBPS depending on how many devices will be online at the same time.” 

Do What’s Right for YOUR Family 

Briana Anderson, MSW
Adult Care Coordinator & Supervised Visitation Monitor

“I think that during this time of uncertainty, the most important thing to keep in mind is what’s right for your family. There are a lot of opinions and pieces of information circling around, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is keeping your family and the community you are raising your children in safe, happy, and healthy, regardless of what that looks like for you. It is important to listen to the public healthcare experts in the fields in which they practice, and as parents and loved ones, it is important that schools and other agencies also listen to you, as you are the experts in your own lives.” 

While the stress of back-to-school for everyone is heightened by our unprecedented, unpredictable world, remembering to take care of yourself and your family, making time for self-care, giving what you can and saying no to what you can’t, and keeping in mind that you aren’t alone in this are varieties of ways to give your family your best chance for success. Coronavirus may have rewritten the trajectory of going back to school, but it doesn’t have to break you. We are in this together - as a family, an agency, a community, and a world.