Back-to-School Anxiety: What Parents and Professionals Need to Know

As summer heat waves break records across the country, many kids and teens have already started preparations for the upcoming school year. Given the many months of learning at home, virtual school, hybrid education, and socially-distanced classes (or some combination of all of these), students are in for another strange and anxiety-provoking back-to-school season. Here are a few things that parents and professionals need to know about back-to-school anxiety in 2021:

1. Anxiety is a very common mental health concern affecting children and teens, and rates of anxiety have increased significantly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 31.9% of young people aged 13-18 experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. The prevalence of anxiety and related mental health concerns has increased worldwide since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of a traumatic global pandemic, social isolation, and changes in routine have increased students’ levels of anxiety, which may lead to ongoing difficulties as school resumes.

2. Public schools (including many charter schools) in the United States are required by federal law to provide appropriate accommodations and/or support for students experiencing anxiety.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are both federal laws that can support students with anxiety in schools. Under Section 504, students with anxiety may be eligible for a 504 Plan, which provides accommodations for students in the general education setting. Under IDEA, students with a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder (such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Social Anxiety Disorder) may be eligible for Special Education services under the area of Emotional Disturbance; these students are provided with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that can provide services ranging from mental health supports to specialized classes. When anxiety poses a problem for children and teens in the school setting (e.g., avoiding classes, difficulty speaking up in class, social worries at lunch/recess), students may qualify for accommodations and/or support through their school. Appropriate accommodations may include teaching and coaching relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness), and the use of gradual exposure practice in the classroom (e.g., answer an easy question with a one-word response first, then move on to a more difficult question or more complex response).

3. Families can plan for a smoother transition back to school by planning ahead for bravery in the face of anxiety triggers.

Parents and professionals (including pediatricians and other mental health providers) can start planning now for back-to-school anxiety. Ask children and teens how they are feeling about returning to school. Most will respond with a mixture of emotions, including excitement and often some worry. Many students are uncomfortable about seeing old friends and meeting new people. Some are concerned about the learning they have forgotten the months since COVID-19 has interrupted their educational lives. Still others might be concerned about eating food in the cafeteria, whether or not their classmates will wear masks, and how much they have grown (or not grown) in the time they have been away. Talk with students about how they can practice their bravery before the school year even starts – set up a meeting with their new teacher/classmates, practice eating in a cafeteria-style restaurant, or even try a timed math test at home. For families who need more support in this process, reach out to a mental health provider who is trained in the treatment of anxiety disorders using Exposure and Response

We are all affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way, and helping our students return to school in the fall will take a lot of emotional strength. Using what we already know about anxiety in school-aged children and teens, we can plan ahead to make this school year even more memorable than the last.


© Erika J. Vivyan, PhD. All rights reserved.

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