Returning to in person learning will require students to go from 18 months of learning in low structure environments to transitioning to more structured and scheduled environments. Some of the students will have already had in school experiences to remember and seek comfort from but for others it will be the their 1st experience with in person teaching. Those transitions alone will be anxiety provoking but can be ameliorated by prepping our students. The following are suggestions specific to elementary age neurotypical children, but the overall concept is adaptable to most children even with diagnosed disorder such as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ADHD. The basic premise is reintroduce consistency and structure to the child’s daily life through purposeful schedules that mimic the school setting so the exposure to the novel situation will reduce anxiety related to change.
Parents, if possible, can prepare your students by transitioning the days in August from low structured daily schedules to incremental transitions to daily schedules that mimic the school environment.
Start regular wake up and sleep time habits that can change in 15 minute increments until the goal is reached. If typical bedtime is 8:30 pm and typical wake time is 7:00 am but with the pandemic, and now summer time, your children are going to bed at 10 pm and waking at 9:30 am, this week make bedtime 9:45 pm and wake them up at 9:15. Continue to make the 15 minute adjustment until you get to your intended wake-up and bedtime preference. By the end of August you should be down to 9:00 pm bedtime and 8:30 am wake-up. Then you will be a lot closer to the desired wake-up and bedtimes required for in person school attendance. Parallel to this is making sure breakfast and dinner are prepared and ready to eat shortly after wake-up and dinner at least 1hour before bedtime in order to allow for proper digestion and preparation times.
Start creating a loose schedule of activities on a daily basis that include things like ½ hour independent quiet time (includes reading, working on math problems, writing relative letter or in journal, eating lunch at the same time each day, regular time to go exercise, etc.). The schedule should try to mimic the schedule for the school as much as possible in order to provide another gradual transition to what is to come. Identify two ½ hour activities to add each week; by the end of August you’ll have 4 hours of scheduled structured time in your child’s day.
Start to go over the COVID specific policy and procedure, such as, appropriate masking, social distancing, hygiene requirements of your community and school, and comfort levels of you family. It is also important to discuss as a family what is the comfort of hugging friends and showing affection. Go out and practice, find areas that allow you to practice social distancing with your child so they can get to understand the concept. Identify and shop for a comfortable mask that your child can tolerate wearing for prolonged periods of time, and practice wearing them in doors in your home. Get in to the habit of washing hands after each transition to instill appropriate hand washing habits.
By starting the aforementioned plan you will be able to reduce the typical resistance associated with anxiety (even if minor) of returning to school after summer break, even more now after a 18 month in person break. That then allows you to assess if any anxiety being experienced by your child is greater than what is reasonable.
Here are some signs to look for to assess if the anxiety is more than what is considered healthy and typical. Yes, I said “healthy”, some level of anxiety is healthy because it prepares the person for something new and unfamiliar, and communicates that something needs to be done to alleviate the uncomfortable feelings associated with anxiety. Symptoms to look for per UCLA Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Supports (CARES) Center.
Physical signs of anxiety
- Often complains of headaches or stomachaches, even though there’s no medical reason for them
- Refuses to eat snacks or lunch at social events such as day care or summer camp
- Won’t use bathrooms except at home
- Is restless, fidgety, hyperactive, or distracted (barring having ADHD)
- Starts to shake or sweat in intimidating situations
- Constantly tenses muscles
- Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Emotional signs of anxiety
- Cries a lot
- Is very sensitive
- Becomes grouchy or angry without any clear reason
- Is afraid of making even minor mistakes
- Has panic attacks (or is afraid of having panic attacks)
- Worries about things that are far in the future, like worrying about starting middle school while still in secong grade
- Is worried or afraid during drop-offs (at daycare, summer camp, relatives’ homes, etc.)
- Has frequent nightmares
Behavioral signs of anxiety
- Asks “what if?” constantly (“What if an earthquake happened?”)
- Avoids joining in during social activity at camp or the park
- Remains silent or preoccupied when expected to work with others
- Refuses to participate in activities such as soccer practice, martial arts practice, etc.
- Increasingly wants to be alone
- Avoids social situations with other kids, like birthday parties or extracurricular activities
- Constantly seeks approval from parents and caregivers, teachers, and friends
- Says “I can’t do it!” without a real reason
- Has meltdowns or tantrums
Many of the above symptoms are typical behaviors for an elementary aged child but two or three from each category above warrants greater scrutiny and consultation with a mental health professional.