First day of school jitters are common across all age groups, including parents and teachers who often report feeling a little anxious as summer comes to an end. In general, students tend to experience a mix of anxiety and excitement about the first day of school due to various changes that can include a new teacher, increased work load and making new friends. If they have experienced bullying or academic struggles, this anxiety may be heightened. However, the past six months have been anything but routine due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has already begun disrupting the 2020/2021 school year. Between the fear of virus itself along with the uncertainties associated with the upcoming school year, even the most confident students are reporting increased anxiety even when they had not experienced this in the past.

Parents and guardians are struggling to find age appropriate ways to ease their child’s anxiety, especially when they have their own fears to cope with.

Providing age appropriate information

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Typically, children in elementary school have a tendency to live in the moment rather than focus on the long term effects of the current situation. For this reason, it is important for caregivers to reassure them that the adults in their life are handling the situation while reinforcing the importance of proper hand hygiene, wearing a mask and obeying all other rules established by their school system. Preteens and teenagers, however, have more exposure to the media and will be more aware of the situation. Depending on their age, interest and intellectual capabilities, caregivers of adolescents should discuss social responsibility and the impact of their choices on others while encouraging them to express their thoughts, fears and opinions related to the pandemic. It is also important to express the importance of obtaining information from reliable sources.

For all age groups parents should refrain from sharing any personal opinions on the pandemic including manner in which their school district is handling the situation. This will only increase their anxiety and lead to more uncertainties.

When to seek professional help

Some children may need a little extra support when it comes to dealing with these changes. Parents should consider contacting a therapist or school counselor if their child is experiencing worsening anxiety beyond what others around them are feeling. These signs include:

  • Increased crying
  • Preoccupation with the virus and getting sick
  • Not engaging in healthy social interactions.
  • Regression in developmental milestones
  • Increased separation anxiety or school avoidance
  • Unwillingness to engage in schoolwork even remotely

Overall, increased first day of school anxiety is expected and will likely decrease once students and teachers become familiar with the new systems and regulations implemented by their school district. For now, all we can do is accept that we are living through unprecedented times and it is only natural to feel a little more stressed. Children are very resilient though and will settle into this “new normal” as time goes on, probably much quicker than the adults in their lives.