Managing Re-entry Anxiety with the Return to School
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
It's back to school season, which commonly is viewed with mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety as students prepare for the return to school. When asked what they are looking forward to, students typically voice their excitement with the prospect of re-engaging with friends. However, this year presents with the novel stress of re-entry following an extended period of social isolation, as many students have not stepped into a school building for nearly 18 months. For some, remote learning has not only created a disconnection from the educational milieu, but also resulted in a sense of alienation from social cliques and face-to-face interactions with peers and adults. During the many months of remote-only learning, students have become accustomed to "hiding" behind computer screens, which has provided a lengthy break from stress related to social comparisons and peer drama, grooming and attire, and awkward situations such as choosing a lab partner or who to sit with at lunch. However, what this also means is that students are now feeling fully exposed. Familiar classmates who previously encountered one another daily and socialized on school-related topics and events no longer have anything in common to fuel communication. As a result, more and more students are displaying features of social anxiety, which is the fear of being judged or evaluated negatively by others. Students are also expressing heightened anxiety with the anticipation of resuming in-person learning, not due to academic demands, but moreso due to social stress. Many are stating "I don't know what to say" when I see classmates, or "I don't know them anymore." Due to extended social distancing, our social skills are rusty and in need of a tune up. Inevitable social encounters are now being viewed with dread and uncertainty.
Social anxiety is being experienced not only by introverted students, but also by social extroverts. There is uncertainty on how to manage customary greetings due to expectations for social distancing. Masks limit our ability to read facial expressions and nonverbal cues, forcing us to be more reliant on verbal communication when interacting in person. Students who moved or transferred schools during the pandemic are feeling even more disconnected. Many who transitioned into middle school, high school or college during Covid-19 missed out on the in-school opportunities that would have enabled them to assimilate into the school community, such as social clubs and activities that foster socialization with other incoming students. Athletic programming was limited, postponed or cancelled, thereby restricting the venue for social connection even more. Although many schools are addressing this issue as they plan for the start of the new school year, students are still feeling awkward and unprepared. They are also worried about academic performance and adjusting to the anticipated increase in academic demands associated with in-person learning. Finally, students are concerned about how to manage differences in beliefs about Covid and vaccination status.
There are some practical strategies that parents can apply when supporting their student with the transition to in-person learning:
Normalize the stress. A friendly reminder - other students are experiencing the same stress and worry! We are all in the same boat. Use examples from your own experiences to help alleviate the false sense that your student is the only person feeling this way.
Take advantage of back to school orientations. Much of the uncertainty about what to expect when students re-enter school will be addressed through pre-orientation days. Anticipatory anxiety is based in fear of the unknown. Students frequently report a dramatic drop in their anxiety once they walk their schedule, practice their locker combination, and interact with peers and teachers face-to-face in the school setting.
Practice Mindfulness. Anxiety stems from worries about the uncertain future. Mindfulness strategies allow us to redirect our attention and energy to the present moment. Grounding techniques, such as attending to our five senses (what I currently see, hear, smell, feel, and taste) and deep breathing exercises can offer an immediate reset so we can focus on what is happening in the present moment.
Dealing with the What Ifs? Worry often stems from a series of successive "what if" statements of escalating intensity related to some unknown event or situation, which can quickly spin out of control. For example, "what if I don't know anyone in my lunch period?" This common worry can quickly fuel other, similar worries, and subsequently lead to avoidance. Work with your student to make a list of the major worries they are experiencing, and then help them to identify several possible solutions. Highlighting facts ("you're friendly and always make friends quickly") and capitalizing on previous experiences and strengths (e.g., "the last time that happened, I remember you...") can be beneficial in reducing anticipatory anxiety.
Develop social scripts. Practicing social scripts, such as what to say or do in certain situations, can be helpful to some students. Exploring a polite way to exit an uncomfortable conversation or social situation can also be reassuring.
Seek support from your school team. Remember, the school team is invested in your student's learning and success, both academically and socially. Some stressors can be quickly alleviated by meeting in advance with the teacher to review what to expect on the first day. Other issues may require a plan that begins at the start of the school year. For example, if your student is relectant to request a restroom break in class, the teacher and student might develop a discrete signal that alerts the teacher of the needed break. If school avoidance is an issue at the beginning of the school day, perhaps a morning check-in with a trusted staff member before the first class period can be arranged. In most cases, the educational team has experienced a similar issue and has ideas for how to help.
Develop positive routines. Predictability is an important tool to assist with the adjustment to new situations. Establish positive routines, such as a set time for homework, a consistent sleep schedule, and disconnecting from technology an hour before bed.
The majority of students will experience a reduction in their anxiety as they navigate the the first week of classes. However, for some, anxiety will persist or may even increase. Signs that your student may be struggling include continued school avoidance or school refusal, increased withdrawal, irritability, inability to concentrate, or persistent physical complaints (e.g., stomachaches, nausea, headaches, disrupted sleep, panic). If this is the case, your student may benefit from a consultation with a therapist to further evaluate their symptoms. The therapists at Konick and Associates have expertise in research-based techniques for stress reduction and anxiety management that will equip you and your student with the necessary tools to manage more effectively. We can also collaborate with your school team to develop a successful re-entry plan. Contact our office at 630.206.4060 or visit www.konickandassociates.com for more information on how we can help.