School anxiety in the time of COVID: how parents and teachers can help kids cope

Christine Grové, Monash University and Kelly-Ann Allen, Monash University

With COVID-related school closures and long periods of remote learning, many kids across Australia have not physically been at school for most of the past two years. Because of the time away, some children might get extremely upset about going back, some might try to avoid school, while others – at the more severe end – might refuse to go to school altogether.

But where an illness or health problem is not present, it is important to continue to expect your child to be at school.

Kids who struggle going back to school may:

  • be anxious or fearful that “something bad” might happen when they return to school
  • complain about issues with other students or teachers
  • refuse to leave the house to go to school
  • report feeling sick and regularly visiting the nurse or sick bay.

Sometimes complaining of illness or pain can be a way children communicate their worries or anxieties. It is important to help them recognise there are other ways to cope with these feelings.

It’s also important to step in quickly. Missed schoolwork and social experiences snowball, making school avoidance a problem that grows bigger and more difficult to manage.

Here’s how you and your child’s school can help.

1. Create a back to school plan

The first thing to do is talk to your child to find out if anything at school is stopping them from wanting to go. Then talk to their teachers: explain why your child might not want to go – for example bullying, learning difficulties or mental health concerns. Discuss how this is affecting your child. You could ask the school about any strategies they are using or ones they could recommend.

Also, listen to children carefully about what their main worries and concerns are, and what other ways they can tackle problems. Do they feel comfortable asking for help when they are at school? And if not, how can that be better facilitated? For instance, using a card or ticket system the child can exchange for help without having to ask.

Then, with your child’s school, you can set up a back to school plan. Organise a gradual start back. For example, your child might be able to start with a shorter school day or with their favourite subjects, and build up from there.

Check to see if there are support staff, like a student well-being officer, school psychologist or counsellor, who can help your child. Ask for regular progress updates on how your child is going.

2. Help your child be more connected

You might also want to include in the plan ways to help increase your child’s sense of belonging to the school. Studies show student anxiety and feelings of not belonging are closely linked. Relationships with teachers and other students are central to feeling a sense of belonging.

If your child is having significant difficulties with attending school, one way to assist could be to help them connect more with their teachers or a staff member. For instance, a teacher could greet them at the gate in the morning. They could also give them a special job to do when arriving such as watering a plant or setting up a classroom.

Child watering plant.
A teacher could ask the struggling student to water a plant in the mornings. Shutterstock

To can help increase your child’s sense of connection to peers, you could:

  • organise to have another student, perhaps a peer or friend, meet your child in the morning and walk together to the classroom
  • help your child facilitate social interaction with other students particularly if they are having trouble doing this on their own. You might inquire if they have friends at school or if they are playing with others at break times
  • look out for opportunities for play dates with peers during holidays, on weekends or after school. Building friendships in informal play-based ways can help buffer some of the worries a student might have when they are at school.

3. Plan helpful transitions

To help kids transition from home to school, parents and teachers can:

  • put together a box of calming items for students in the early or primary years to go to in a different area (like a quiet space in the library) before going into the classroom. Research shows children can use familiar items as distractions to calm their nerves in stressful situations
  • have a clear transition routine between parents and teachers that is followed each day. A teacher meeting the child at the gate can be part of this routine.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is file-20220209-17-n7f1kg.jpg
It could help laying out uniforms the night before. Shutterstock

At home, parents can try to:

  • reduce the stress and hurry of morning routines. If you can, lay out uniforms the night before, and pack lunch boxes too
  • keep the child connected to the school. For instance, if they don’t go to school for a day, ensure they do some school work at home
  • reinforce school is a safe place
  • identify key people at school the student can go to for help (such as five trusted adults).

What if all this doesn’t work?

If these strategies don’t work, and if your child struggles to go to school for weeks or months, an evaluation from a health-care professional, like an educational and developmental psychologist, can help identify if there are more serious concerns at play.

School refusal is a term used to describe children who have ongoing concerns with attending school. Consistently not going to school can be associated with separation anxiety, depression, panic disorder or a specific phobia around attending school.

Only 1-5% of students experience genuine school refusal and they often require therapy, support, medication, or ongoing accommodations to help them.

In severe cases, other options of schooling may best be suited, like a variation in a school day or homeschooling.

It’s also important to remember children can pick up when their parents are feeling nervous and this can exacerbate their own anxiety. So a big part of the transition process is for parents to model good coping strategies. With time, children will benefit from observing that stress and worry are a part of life, and will hopefully develop their own ways to cope.

There is a different solution for each child, and progress can be slow. Try to be patient too – some children can take a few weeks to adjust. But they will likely be making progress each day, and building the confidence they need to get back to school regularly without the nerves.

If this article has raised concerns for you or someone you know, you can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Christine Grové, Educational and Developmental Psychologist & Academic, Monash University and Kelly-Ann Allen, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 tips to help students thrive this term

Living amid a pandemic may feel more normal than last term, but there’s still much to navigate. And as recent floods along Australia’s east coast show, life will continue to throw challenges at our children, young people, schools and community. 

The first term back at school was marked by disrupted teaching, student absenteeism, COVID anxiety, and parent concerns around educational outcomes. But it’s not all bad news. The school community has shown it’s adaptable and resilient. The pandemic has also shone a light on the importance of mental health, and human interaction in-particular. 

Much can be gained by focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of your students, now and into the future. Research from the past few years highlights how you can help your students thrive at school this term. 

1. Remember that healing is not linear 

As we head into Term 2, it’s tempting to assume that the hard part is behind us and students have recovered from the changes associated with going back to school. Not only are we still very much in a pandemic, but recovery from trauma rarely follows a straight path. 

Peer Support Australia’s CEO Samantha Brown says: “Students have continuing needs for support as they adapt to their new normal. A child or young person who showed resilience last year may be falling apart now.” 

Ms Brown says schools may be tempted to pour resources into crisis mental health care, but it’s also important to consider school culture, and include universal strength-based mental health initiatives, like  Peer Support, in your wellbeing strategy. 

“The Peer Support Program offers a way for children to articulate their emotional needs on an ongoing basis. That consistency is vital to the individual and collective sense of safety,” she says.

2. Acknowledge the link between learning and wellbeing 

Like adults, children and young people need connection and interaction. Remote learning and the surrounding stressors of COVID have had a big impact on the wellbeing and mental health of students. There have been many factors at play, including social isolation. As educators, we need to be mindful of students’ mental states and the impact this has on learning.  

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell says,“When children are not able to interact with their teachers and their peers directly, their learning suffers.” (You can read more from Ms Russel on the UNICEF website here.) 

The more children feel safe, included, and happy, the more open they are to learning. 

Omar Arias, World Bank Manager, Global Engagement and Knowledge, Education, says: “We need to be guided by the fact that children learn best when they experience joy, rigor, and purpose in the learning process”. (Read more on that on the World Bank site here.) 

3. Consider your approach to discipline 

One challenge for teachers and caregivers is knowing when to be an enforcer and when to set rules aside. 

Living in a pandemic has seen a worldwide shake up of priorities. Some of the things we used to care about at school may seem less important now. 

Research indicates that instead of enforcing the traditional teacher/student power dynamic, educators should take a more collaborative approach. This does not mean handing control over to students, but rather listening to children and young people, and working with them to set boundaries. 

Public health academics Dr Gary Harper and Dr Leah Neubauer found that COVID has exacerbated the need for trauma-informed care principles to be adopted in schools. 

“Power brokers should promote the empowerment of students, educators, and administrators, and actively work to dismantle programs, policies, and practices that have denied people without power their voice and choice,” they say. 

They argue that COVID presents us with an opportunity to rethink learning and centre student wellbeing in place of traditional discipline-based classroom management. 

4. Be mindful of the widening gap between students  

Lockdowns and home learning has widened the disadvantage gap among students, socially, emotionally and academically.

Research published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that the pandemic is likely to be felt harder by children facing socio-economic disadvantage. Over time, these effects are projected to widen existing inequalities and the negative outcomes they create.

By being aware of this cycle, schools have the opportunity to play a powerful role in public health at the systemic level. 

“Schools could be articulated as public health universal platforms, with a focus on promotion, prevention and equity in both learning and wellbeing,” the authors say.

By working with principals, wellbeing coordinators, and counselors, teachers can help interrupt the cycle of disadvantage. 

5. Encourage peer connection

Peer Support Australia CEO Samantha Brown says a positive school culture is realised when students form connections peer-to-peer and with the wider school community.

The Peer Support Program places students at the centre of their learning, empowering them with practical skills and strategies to positively navigate life and relationships. 

“Participating students realise the significant outcomes of the program, including better connectedness, reduction in bullying behaviours, improved resilience and a greater sense of possibility,” she says.

University of South Australia Professor Marjory Ebbeck says reciprocal, positive relationships with teachers are central to their children’s wellbeing and parents must recognise this time can be challenging for teachers.

“Building positive, reciprocal relationships… demonstrate positive partnerships that will fare well in their future,” she says. (You can read more from Professor Ebbeck here.) 

Ms Brown says Term 2 can be a time for teachers to embrace the new way forward, after getting through another bumpy Term 1.

“A focus on wellbeing across the whole school community will undoubtedly pave the way to turning outcomes around from this pandemic,” she says.

You may also be interested in: 

Peer Support Australia workshops for teachers

Building student connections during a pandemic

How to support student wellbeing during lockdown