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Back-to-school anxiety in kids: What to watch out for

By Gail Belsky

At a Glance

  • Many kids are anxious about going back this year.

  • They may worry that they’ve fallen behind and won’t catch up.

  • Kids have to adjust to everything from socializing to schedules.

Some kids get anxious over the start of school every year. This year, many more may be feeling stressed about going back. That’s especially true for kids who struggle with learning or with making friends, and those with anxiety.

Many kids haven’t done full-time in-person schooling for a year and a half. They’ll need to adjust to learning in a traditional classroom. They may have to get used to new rules about social distancing or wearing masks. And they’ll also have to interact more with peers and adults than they have in a while. 

Some kids are starting the year with difficulties they didn’t really have — or didn’t notice — before the pandemic. And kids who already had challenges may have fallen behind or be struggling more than ever.

Here are some other things kids are likely to be anxious about as school starts this year:

  • Being behind and not being able to catch up

  • Seeing other kids and fitting in after being away so long

  • Not being prepared for changes or not knowing what to expect

Kids may need extra support as they head back to school. But there are things families and educators can do to ease the transition and help kids manage anxiety.

Dive deeper

Signs of anxiety

Kids show anxiety in different ways at different ages. The signs can look like other things (or nothing in particular), so it can be confusing. Signs of anxiety can be physical, emotional, or behavioral. 

Here are some examples:

  • Refuses to eat snacks or lunch at school

  • Won’t use bathrooms away from home

  • Worries about things far in the future

  • Can’t handle any criticism, even constructive criticism

  • Says “I can’t do it” without any reason

  • Starts withdrawing from activities

Learn about other signs of anxiety:

Typical anxiety versus an anxiety problem

Most kids feel anxious from time to time. Typical anxiety is a response to a stressful situation. It’s temporary and doesn’t interfere with other areas of life.

An anxiety problem is when the feelings are intense and don’t go away. That can happen when kids face ongoing stress. The anxiety spreads and kids feel anxious most of the time. At this point, anxiety may be diagnosed as a medical condition.

Discover the differences between typical anxiety and an anxiety problem .

Anxiety about masks and social distancing

Some kids who learn and think differently may feel anxious about school rules for social distancing and wearing masks. That’s especially true for kids who struggle with self-control and focus, and kids with sensory processing challenges.

Get tips to help kids cope with:

How parents and caregivers can help

If your child feels anxious about going back to school, you may not know what to do. It’s especially hard if you feel anxious, too.

Let your child know that lots of people are anxious about going back to work and school, like teachers and other kids at school. Say it’s OK to feel that way, and that you’re there to talk and listen.

Keep track of signs of anxiety you’re seeing, and when you notice them. This can help you identify patterns in your child’s behavior. 

And connect with your child’s teacher as early as possible. Let the teacher know about your child’s concerns about returning to school and any signs of anxiety you’ve seen. (Use this back-to-school update form as a guide.)

More tips:

How educators can help

Anxiety may be easy to spot in some of your students. With others, it may not be so clear what’s behind difficult behavior — especially when you’re new to your students and they’re new to you.

Teaching with empathy can help you understand and connect with students who are struggling. It allows you to focus on what’s behind the behavior, instead of how that behavior is affecting the class. 

This doesn’t mean lowering expectations. In fact, when you connect with students, you show them you believe in their abilities and are supportive. That can give them confidence to tackle more challenging work. 

Get tips on how to teach with empathy . And encourage parents to fill out this back-to-school update and share it with you.

Related topics

COVID Parenting Stress and anxiety

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom