Traditionally, the end of the summer is marked, in many families, by a flurry of activities such as shopping, packing, and planning for the resumption of learning activities in schools across the country. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, the haste and anxiety characterizing this transition this year are likely to be higher than most years before. For children, the list of radical alterations in routine and behavior, coupled with rules on wearing protective attire and adopting a hygiene practice, is likely to make the back-to-school period a challenging experience. This challenging time is made worse by the need to adapt to a virtual learning routine and, in many cases, anxiety over contracting the virus. For parents, preparing children for school, creating an environment for virtual learning at home, while at the same time working constitute a highly demanding and stressful situation. However, by actively managing their children’s emotional and mental health, preparing a comfortable learning space, and practicing relaxation techniques, parents can reduce the anxiety accompanying this transition.
The most noticeable changes for children returning to physical learning are the guidelines on social distancing, wearing facial masks, and frequently sanitizing or cleaning hands. Collectively, these requirements amount to a drastic shift from the traditional schedule of resuming studies and, as a result, may elicit feelings of anxiety and exhaustion among the learners. To help the children adapt to these changes, parents can rely on a strategy based on thorough familiarization. This approach may include clear explanations of the situation resulting from the virus and a discussion of all the expectations for returning to school before the children resume. Use child friendly terms can be helpful – such as “the scientists and doctors are working still to stop the germs, so we need to follow these steps to stay healthy.” It is helpful to help children understand both what they are expected to do and why the new pattern of behavior is being instituted. Parents can help reduce anxiety by establishing a simple routine for children to follow, whether they are resuming physical classes or learning virtually. For instance, an excellent way to start the day off is to have a specific waking up time that is well before the reporting time, having breakfast together, cleaning up, ensuring that such items as hand sanitizers are packed, and saying goodbye warmly. A similar sequence of activities can be adopted for after school, evening, and weekends. By having a standard routine, children can feel comfortable with the new school year environment.
It is essential parents monitor for signs of anxiety and proactively address mental health issues that may arise from the changes. In addition to establishing school attendance routines, it is helpful for parents to become more available to their children, checking in and communicating during school time at home and holding frequent discussions about their worries while reassuring them. Moreover, watching for symptoms as restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and other patterns pointing to clinical anxiety or depression. As part of the preventive strategies, parents can encourage children to remain socially connected with their peers. Social connection through video calls after school, connected games, or even physical playing sessions in which appropriate measures for social distancing can positively enhance mental well being. Taking steps for children to create a social connection is particularly relevant to children learning through online platforms. Ideally, the instructional methodology will not be restricted to pre-recorded lectures, but include live interactions with teachers. It may be helpful to monitor and control the amount of screen time that children have, attempting to supplement device-based learning with the reading of hardcopy books and engagement in physical activities.
The back to school period is also likely to be stressful for parents. Between attending work, attending to the needs of their children, and adapting to working while children conduct school at home, parents may find themselves exhausted and overcome with anxiety. To reduce such an outcome, parents can take some time before the week starts to carefully plan their work routine and incorporate exercise and other coping strategies into their schedules. For instance, creating time to take a walk or doing other activities to relax and refresh one’s mind can help avoid parental burnout. Other strategies for overcoming anxiety and burnout include practicing positive thinking, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and focusing on events that are within one’s control. Also, preparing a dedicated workspace that is physically removed from the rest of the home and where children understand that parents are working can help parents concentrate on their work even when children are in the house. A similar but separate school space, complete with a comfortable desk and chair, learning devices, and situated where there are minimum disruptions, is vital for children taking online classes. Moreover, by working at specific times that children are aware of, parents can decrease the likelihood of interruptions and increase their performance when working at home. A carefully planned schedule for bedtimes, preparation for school, and ending school and work time is an effective way of managing both responsibilities.
Overall, returning to school during the ongoing public health concern poses an unfamiliar challenge for both parents and the learners. The risk of anxiety and exhaustion arising from the changes is elevated. Creating a collection of coping and preventive strategies can be applied to cope with the changes and maintain a healthy learning and work routine. Necessary measures to take to achieve this outcome include frequent discussions with children, the creation of daily routines for both school and work, ongoing assessment for symptoms of anxiety, and preparation of dedicated studying and working spaces at home.