Your Health

Neuroscience News: How to support the transition back to school

Zoe Morgan/Town Crier File Photo
Students returned in person to Montclaire Elementary School this month. The transition required emotional thoughtfulness for the kids – and for their parents, too.


School closures a year ago forced families to develop new routines and ways of living.

Some were able to create constructive routines and learning environments for their children, balancing the demands of remote working and family commitments with ease. Others, with the passage of time and despite the best of intentions, have fallen into less-than-ideal home-schooling habits, needing to cajole bored children into engaging in their Zoom classes or coerce them to do their homework.

Consequently, the staged reopening of schools is likely to be causing excitement and anxiety for both parents and children.

Parents looking to support their child’s transition back to the classroom, or whose child is reluctant or anxious about going back, can do much to help.

Some parents are concerned about the risk of contagion, but according to Dr. Maheen Mausoof Adamson, lead scientist for the ENIGMA Consortium’s COVID-19 task force and clinical associate professor of neurosurgery at the Stanford School of Medicine, children account for “roughly 13% of the total cases in the U.S., and most do not develop serious illness after infection.” However, efforts are underway at the National Institutes of Health to study children who develop symptoms, even in the rare cases.

“Children, therefore, should be reminded to wear masks, stay 6 feet apart and wash their hands regularly,” Adamson advised.

Relieving anxiety

Following are strategies for helping relieve children’s back-to-school anxiety.

• Spot and manage anxiety. Parents of anxious children can spot when their children need extra support or what may exacerbate their anxiety. Parents may be anticipating a spike in anxiety associated with the partial return to school, and many may already be putting strategies in place.

For children who haven’t previously shown signs of anxiety, or for parents wondering if their child is anxious about the return to school, there are typical ways children demonstrate their worries, including anger, irritability or refusing to talk about going back to school.

Even for children returning to a familiar school, or for those who are excited about going back, new school rules and routines will likely be in place. Anxiety and worry thrive on uncertainty. Whenever possible, discuss any new school policies and schedules to ensure that children know what to expect.

• Stay calm and positive. It’s worth reminding children that it’s perfectly normal to be scared, excited, worried, relieved or anxious about returning to school. Even though their worries are real and valid, children are looking for reassurance that there’s no reason for them to worry.

Especially for younger children, a year is a long time, and they may have forgotten what going to school is like. Reminding them of fond memories or what they enjoyed doing with friends may be helpful.

Older children may be concerned about changes to or loss of friendships during quarantine. Encourage them to rekindle their connections, perhaps walking to school together.

• Validate feelings and reduce uncertainty. Everyone, children included, appreciates having their feelings validated. Providing a safe space to express worries may be sufficient to alleviate anxiety. Focus on reflecting, but don’t fuel worries.

For children who are less comfortable expressing their fears, practical ways to alleviate anxiety include gradual exposure. Start by walking past the school, then practice drop-off, then a short school day, etc.

Children transitioning to new schools will worry about how to find classrooms and restrooms, perhaps contributing to a reluctance to return to school. Helping them get answers to their unknowns may lessen their worries. Consider looking at the school’s floor plan and pointing out a few key places.

• Encourage flexibility and resilience. For children with special needs, remote schooling has been good and bad in equal measure. Some have thrived with setting their own pace, while others have struggled to stay focused and motivated. The reality is that all children are likely to be several months behind academically. Everyone is in the same boat.

Teachers are making great efforts to support kids returning to the classroom, with many making “welcome back” videos to help students reconnect and remind them of the classroom environment.

• Review and restart routines. Our post-pandemic life has less structure – irregular bedtimes, at times staying in pajamas until midday. Returning to a routine of getting up and out the door before noon is something that we’ve all forgotten how to do. Feeling tired makes it harder to manage emotions and change, and establishing a routine will reduce the stress of returning to school.

One thing we’ve all learned from the pandemic: We need to be flexible. Schools are reopening, but they may close again. Preparing children for the inevitable changes that are likely to occur during the rest of the school year is a life skill worth developing.

Rita Hitching is a local researcher and teacher who writes on teen brain development. She uses the latest neuroscience data to explain how the teen body and brain develop and publishes those explanations on her website, teenbrain.info.

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