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Understanding the Unique Challenges/Stressors Children Face Starting Off the School Year

By: Samantha Margaritis

As a nation, we have come a long way since the start of the 2020 school year. At the start of last school year, there was a sense of uncertainty around the big decision on whether or not to enroll your child for in-person or online instruction. Children were given the challenge to adapt in numerous ways. Children adapted to online learning, masks, social distancing, and meticulous sanitizing procedures. Since then, vaccines have been developed and a little over half of the US population has been vaccinated. Unfortunately, despite these developments, it is no secret that COVID remains a risk and a worry to many.


So what are some of the unique challenges or stressors that children face this school year?


As each child is unique and special, each child may face different challenges or stressors. However, below please see some common challenges that your child may face and some tips on what you can do to help support and comfort them during this transition.


Reintroduction to In-Person instruction:


Just like an adult starting a new job or getting a new supervisor at work, each year children have to adapt to the new expectations/responsibilities assigned to them by their grade level and teacher. And for many children who have been engaged in online learning for over a year now, going back into the classroom can be particularly overwhelming. For many, online instruction had become their new normal. Many children grew to love the comfort of learning from home. Countless children got to be in their personal space and got the freedom to take breaks, have snacks, and wear what they wanted during the day. For many children, going back to school may evoke more changes than expected. For example, suddenly they have to wake at an earlier time, dress differently for the day, wear shoes all day, and have their things organized, packed, and ready to go.


It is important to note that adapting to this new routine may take your child time. I would like to encourage parents to think about how a transition like this might feel as an adult. Having a conversation with your children about these changes they are experiencing can be very helpful. Children are not always able to identify how these changes are affecting them. Identifying these changes with them and letting them know that it is “ok” and that it is “normal” to feel a bit overwhelmed and for it to take a little time to adjust to these changes is important. By doing this, it gives children a chance to better understand their feelings and helps prevent them from internalizing these feelings as “not liking school” or “not being good at school”.



Socializing and Interacting with Peers


Coming back to school and being around new and old classmates can be a little nerve-wracking for most students. Coming back to in-person instruction and being around peers may be particularly daunting for those children who did online instruction and especially daunting for those children who previously dealt with some social anxiety and spent the last year doing online instruction. Many children who have been isolated may have missed out on the normalcy of socializing and interacting with their peers and it is important to note that it is normal if they are to experience some worry, doubt, or nervousness about going back to school.


Some tips for parents or adults working with children who are facing this challenge would be first to open a dialogue with them about their feelings. This is always key, even if they don’t engage much, it sends them the message that you love and care for them. Helping them identify some soothing thoughts to reinforce and think about during the school day is helpful. For example, they could remind themselves that each day they are going home, making friends takes time, or that they are loved and accepted by family or a special person in their life. Another idea to try with your child is brainstorming some conversation starters. You can do this by just having a conversation or you could try some acting or role-playing with them. This may be a fun way to bond and help your child feel more prepared when they are in school.



Mask, No Mask?


Whether or not to wear a mask has been a popular topic amongst many. Some schools and districts are requiring masks this school year, while others are leaving it to be a personal decision. For those children who have this choice whether or not to wear one, it may be a tough one, especially if their peers are divided with some opting for masks and some not. It is important to note that as humans we have the natural desire to fit in. If others are not wearing a mask, it may make a child feel a bit uncomfortable to be the one to stand out. It may also make them feel uncomfortable if they feel like others not wearing a mask is putting them at risk for contracting COVID.


If your child is facing this, it is important to talk with them about how this “mask” or “no mask” decision is making them feel. Speaking with your child about a difference of opinion and helping normalize this can be important for their development. Children tend to have more black and white thinking, where things are rather good or bad, and there is no in-between. In life, we all experience working with individuals who have different beliefs or ideas, and it is important to learn how to navigate this. Letting your child know that it is ok for a difference of opinion may help lessen the stress or anxiety they may feel. If your child is worried about contracting COVID, it can be helpful to talk to them about the protective factors that are in play to help keep them healthy and reassure them that if they do get sick, there are resources that can help.


If your child is struggling with anxiety or is experiencing difficulty adjusting, and would like to get additional help, please reach out to our office to meet with one of our experienced therapists.

Written by Samantha Margaritis

From Samantha's bio...

Samantha approaches each individual she works with respect, patience and understanding. Her objective is to meet each individual child/teen where they are, and implement an individualized path of treatment that facilitates emotional and behavioral growth. Her areas of interest include treatment for anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, depressive disorders, and adjustment disorders in children and teens.

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