A Parent and child holding hands preparing for the first day of schoolWith the first day of school just around the corner, and COVID-19 still a reality, students of all ages are gearing up for a not-quite-normal return to the classroom. COVID-19 aside, back-to-school season is already a source of worry and anxiety for some.

Dr. Sara King is an associate professor in the School Psychology graduate program in the Faculty of Education at MSVU and a registered psychologist. We turned to her for some advice to help students and parents tackle back-to-school struggles.

Anxiety vs. Worry

The difference between anxiety and worry is a crucial one, according to Dr. King. “Anxiety is worry that is impairing and disproportionate to the situation or event,” she says. “Many people are worried right now because of the uncertainty around returning to school when the pandemic is ongoing, but not all of these people would be considered to have clinical levels of anxiety.” This distinction is important because those experiencing a level of anxiety that is regularly impairing their normal functioning should seek the help of a physician or registered psychologist.

What parents/teachers can do to help worried children

1. Label and validate your child’s feelings, but avoid over talking.

Many parents struggle to validate their child’s feelings when they are nervous about returning to school. Dr. King suggests this approach: “Label how they are feeling and then tell them that they can do it, perhaps by pointing to other times they handled a big event.” But don’t over talk. “Avoid long, drawn-out conversations. Be like a boxer ‘jabbing.’ Get in and get out.”

2. Talk about what to expect. And provide information about changes in routine.

Both parents and teachers can help children manage their worries by sharing information honestly and in understandable terms. “Present your child with factual information about what to expect at school,” says Dr. King. “As well, teachers and parents should try to be on the same page to promote the best outcome for a student who tends to worry.”

Routines play a huge role for all of us, but they’re crucial for children, according to Dr. King. “All kids like predictability,” she says. “But when a change in routine arises [like heading back to school, or a change in routine at school], some children may struggle, especially if they are prone to worrying.”

Dr. King recommends providing your child with a heads up about anticipated changes. “Let’s say the library is canceled one day because the students have an assembly. Letting a child know a little while in advance can prepare them for that change in routine without disruptive behaviours.”

3. Manage excessive reassurance seeking.

Repeatedly asking for reassurance about a situation can be an ineffective way of coping. Providing repeated reassurance provides short-term relief for your child, but doesn’t generally help with coping in the longer term.

“Adults naturally want to make a child feel better, but sometimes reassurance can only add to a child’s anxiety,” says Dr. King. “Saying something like ‘it will be okay’ is too vague a response; it doesn’t address any of the child’s questions or concerns. Parents should facilitate conversations that get to the point of addressing a child’s specific worries.”

It can be a tricky balance: provide reassurance, but don’t get caught in a reassurance cycle. “Providing specific information by addressing specific concerns can help protect a child against repeated reassurance-seeking behaviours.”

4. Read books and watch movies that teach children that it’s ok to have fears.

Dr. King cites the popular Pixar film Inside Out as a great option for young children, and books by Dawn Huebner, including What to Do When You Worry Too Much. These types of resources offer fun ways to broach the topics of worry and anxiety.

5. Consider when to reward.

Can a reward be offered to help a child break reassurance-seeking habits or combat their fears generally? There’s room for rewards, according to Dr. King. And rewards can be anything from an experience to a small material reward – use something of value to your child. “Reward a behaviour that you want to see happen again,” she says. For example, you can reward an anxious child for going to school without having a parent stay or without calling/texting a parent. Rewards can work for teachers in the classroom too.

6. Know that disruptive behaviour can be a sign of worry or anxiety.

Sometimes children may exhibit difficult behaviours in order to avoid anxiety-inducing situations.

“Let’s say that it’s show-and-tell time, and a child is nervous about speaking in front of the classroom. The function of a disruptive behaviour in this context is often to avoid the uncomfortable situation. It’s a way for the child to avoid their anxiety.”

Helping a child cope with their worry could help reduce these types of disruptive avoidance behaviours.

7. Accept worry and anxiety as a part of life, and know that kids are resilient.

Dr. King reminds that, to a certain degree, anxiety is normal – it’s a response designed to keep us out of danger. But it’s important it exists as “background noise” and that we treat it that way. “Whether child or adult, we need to acknowledge it, address it when necessary, but still live our lives.”

If worry or anxiety is affecting your child’s functioning, seek the help of a physician or registered psychologist.