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Going Back To School Might Cause Anxiety For A Lot Of Kids. Here's How You Can Help

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Redondo Beach Unified students are back on campus for hybrid learning. (Courtesy of the Redondo Beach Unified School District)
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This month, school districts across L.A. County are planning to start hybrid learning for elementary school students. Several districts have already been offering in-person classes for weeks now.

And while many parents and students are excited, the transition back to school can involve some stress.

"After a year of being in this pandemic, people have all kinds of fears and there's a lot of anxiety around opening," said Debra Duardo, Superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Duardo encourages parents to set their children's expectations before they return to the classroom, even if students seem eager to go back.

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"Especially for younger children, you really have to walk them through it," Duardo said.

At this point, only elementary school campuses in L.A. County are allowed to open. But as soon as this weekend, L.A. County could enter the less restrictive "red" tier, allowing middle schools and high schools to start bringing students back as well.

Parents will have the option to remain online-only for the rest of this semester if they don't feel comfortable sending their children back to school in person, according to guidance from the County Department of Public Health. That decision is up to the parents, but Duardo said they should be prepared to explain their rationale to their kids.

"Each family needs to sit down and look at their own individual circumstances," she said. "Who lives in the household with them? Whether or not they are working outside of the home. They need to consider what the COVID rates are in their community."

For families who do send their kids back to the classroom, here are some expert tips for smoothing the transition for some of the youngest students:

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HELP KIDS VISUALIZE THEIR NEW CLASSROOM

Helping children picture their post-pandemic learning environment at school can be a good first step, according to Duardo.

Parents can research their school's safety measures and help children visualize their classroom so the changes don't come as a shock, especially if they've never been to the campus before, she said.

Some schools even have pictures of hybrid classrooms on their websites that parents and children can look at together.

"You're going to see that there are less desks and they're going to be spread out. You're going to see that everyone is wearing masks," Duardo said. "But all of this is just to make sure that you're safe."

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A cafeteria worker with the Redondo Beach Unified School district prepares fruit cups. (Courtesy of the Redondo Beach Unified School District)

DAILY CHECK-INS

At this point, the L.A. County Office of Education is mostly focused on preventing student anxiety, because it's still unclear how young children will respond to hybrid learning.

Marina Scates, a school counselor coordinator for the County Office of Education, is working to set up surveys and needs assessments to check in with students. While the county works to get a read on students' mental health generally, Scates said parents should also conduct daily family check-ins.

"Parents can go to kids and say 'Hey, how do you feel about going back to school? What are your thoughts? What can I do to be a support system for you?'" she said.

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During this transition period, parents should be on the lookout for warning signs of grief and anxiety in their children, Scates said.

DEALING WITH GRIEF

In a recent update from the L.A. County Department of Public Health, Director Barbara Ferrer noted that one in three Angelenos knows someone who has died or become seriously ill with COVID-19. Grief for a lost loved one -- made even harder during a pandemic -- can be a weight on children, even when they're very young.

"Grief is its own beast. It can come and go in waves," Scates said. "You have to really help students identify what it is because a lot of times, kids don't know that emotion."

Scates said parents should pay attention to changes in their child's behavior, especially frequent crying, retreating from family, reckless behavior, or angry outbursts.

It's also important to keep in mind that grief doesn't have to be about losing a loved one. It can also be about lost time or experiences, like graduations, promotional ceremonies, birthdays, or missing family members.

"We're all grieving," Scates said. "Some kids are going to be grieving the fact that they're not at home anymore."

Whatever the cause, families should try to maintain routines as much as possible, and find a way to memorialize the person or thing that was lost.

Scates said parents shouldn't bear the emotional burden alone; she encourages them to refer their children to mental health professionals if necessary.

ANXIETY

Like grief, feelings of anxiety can also come in waves and manifest in different ways. Here are some warning signs of anxiety in elementary school-age children, according to school counselor coordinator Scates:

  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Fear of being alone
  • Strong startle response
  • Saying "I can't do it" without reason
  • Suddenly avoiding all social interaction
  • Frequent urination
  • Constantly asking questions such as: What if? Is someone going to die? Are you coming back?
  • Fear of making minor mistakes
  • Changes in eating or sleeping pattern
  • Suddenly wetting the bed

Parents can take notes if they see changes in their child's behavior or any of these warning signs. In that case, Scates said they should consider seeking support from their child's school.
Parents with older children should also prepare for conversations about schools reopening. Mental health experts recommend monitoring teen's exposure to the news and social media, and directing them toward trusted sources on the virus.

Scates acknowledges that parents might have anxiety of their own when it comes to sending kids back, and they shouldn't hide those feelings from their family.

"It's okay to tell your kids, 'Hey I'm a little scared about you going back to school,'" Scates said. "But it's being a role model with those emotions."

Parents should show their kids healthy ways to handle anxiety, like going for a walk, playing music, or even having a dance party, she said.

The L.A. County Office of Education has compiled these parent resources on COVID-19 and mental health.

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