As the school year approaches, it’s important that caregivers are aware of the possibility for increased anxiety in their children. It’s already common for anxiety to ramp up before school starts, but with COVID-19, it can become even more challenging for children. With norms changing, such as the irregularity of schedules and the full-time use of masks, it’s important for caregivers to have some tools at hand to help their children cope through a potentially difficult time.

Back to School
Back to school anxiety is common and often expected in children and teenagers. Uncertainty comes with a new school year and worries are often rooted in teachers, friends, schoolwork, and even clothing. A new school year is challenging on its own, but with COVID-19 thrown into the mix, the shifting of norms can trigger this anxiety.
According to Ontario’s announcement of a modified school-day routine for secondary schools, the typical school week will change with an alternating timetable, where some days will require learning from home. This adapted model encourages cohorts, where any student-to-student contact will be limited, potentially causing anxiety in some teenagers. In these cases, caregivers will find it useful to ask their children about any worries they might have so as to dissuade possible anxiety.

Interacting with Your Child
It’s crucial that caregivers communicate with their children, especially about feelings, asking them to share their worries and anxieties. It’s important not to dismiss their fears or shut down the conversation.
However insignificant their fears may seem, they can be enormous to a child. It is typical to be quick to dismiss fears, responding with, “it will be fine,” or, “don’t worry about it,” but it’s important for the caregiver to problem-solve and plan with their child. By talking through anxieties, and addressing them from a more logical perspective, the caregiver enables their child, allowing them to have a say in how to move forward.
When worries start to come up that involve COVID-19, it’s crucial that the caregiver stays calm, responding in a way that is supportive, thus creating a safe space for their child to learn to understand and express their feelings positively. By communicating with their child, the caregiver becomes recognized as a safe person to share with, fostering a positive, trusting relationship.

Fulltime Use of Masks
Along with a new schedule comes new rules. Ontario announced, in the upcoming school year, that it will be mandatory for children and teenagers from grades 4 to 12 to wear non-medical face masks. For younger children, it will be difficult to adjust to the new environment, especially when trying to understand the emotions of their peers and teachers.
It’s important for caregivers to prime their children for this new environment before school resumes. Some ways to do this are to help the child identify their caregiver’s emotions when their face is partially covered by a mask. Practicing emotions with a child in front of a mirror is a great way to help with identifying emotion. By emphasizing visible facial cues, body movements, and hand gestures with a child, focusing on the eyebrows, eyes, and other facial movement, they grow to recognize these tells. A good way for a caregiver to do this throughout the day, is to verbalize his or her own emotions, saying things like, “look, I am happy. My cheeks lift up, my eyes crinkle, and my arms and hands look like this.” It is also a good idea to be deliberate with gestures, shrugging shoulders when sad, extending arms when happy, etc.
Allowing children to pick out their own material or face mask encourages them to wear their masks. It can also be helpful to allow a child to include masks in play, wearing one, and putting some on stuffed animals or dolls. This increases the acceptance of wearing a face covering and familiarizes the child with encountering them in his or her environment.

Back to school can be anxiety inducing, especially with COVID-19. Caregivers should ensure that they are communicating with their children, focusing on worries or anxieties that they may be experiencing as school approaches. Instead of minimizing their worries, caregivers should logically work through their child’s problems and come up with a solution that the child is involved in creating. Since masks have become mandatory at school, it’s crucial that caregivers practice emotions with their children, and encourage a play environment where masks are involved.

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