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Back To School Anxiety: Supporting The Social-Emotional

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Show Notes

0:49  Robin reads the first question from listeners.

Hi, I’m a school counselor in an elementary school. The return to school has many parents, myself included, anxious. With that said, how do you suggest I coach parents on supporting students prior to the return date? We know kids are picking up their cues from the adults. They’re surrounded by and many times those adults are unintentionally feeding student fears. How can I assist a family member and myself who’s super stressed and anxious, but is unwilling or unable to change patterns?

7:44  Lynn talks about the importance of positive expectancy in our language with our children.

9:44 Lynn gives in home and at school ways to create ritual for a new school year.

12:10  Lynn talks about why academics are NOT the priority this fall, and has a special message for parents concerned about their children falling behind academically.

15:49 Robin reads the second listener question about teacher anxiety

I facilitate the majority of our building-based professional development as I try to think about what the fall will look like, and I really can’t. We have a few teachers we’re really concerned about in regards to their emotional health and readiness for in-person instruction. My principal and I have discussed this at length, how do we address this with them gracefully without putting them over the edge and make them feel supported? We think they could really use some professional help. What can we do?

19:17  Robin referenced one of Lynn’s Facebook Live videos talking about feeling back to school anxiety for the first time: “the worry rookies”.

21:13  Robin talked about this Facebook post that was a letter from nurses to teachers.

22:03 Lynn talks about not misplacing anger or blame on the school situation but to model empathy.

Back To School Anxiety

Episode Transcript

Lynn Lyons  0:02 

Back-to-school anxiety.

Well, we started talking about it in a previous episode. But we’re not done yet. There are so many questions and so many challenges this year as we all know. We’re taking more listener questions, and, this time, we’re talking to administrators and school counselors, trying to figure out how best to bring our kids back into school, and how to handle all of the worry and the uncertainty that this situation is bringing. And I’ve also got some advice for parents who are worried about their children academically. Are they falling behind? Are they able to catch up? And we’ll talk about that.

Hi, I’m Lynn Lyons. I’m a speaker and author and anxiety expert, a psychotherapist, and I’m here with my sister-in-law, Robin.

Hi, Robin!

Robin Hutson  0:49 

Hi, Lynn!

Here’s our first question from our listeners.

Hi, I’m a school counselor in an elementary school. The return to school has many parents, myself included, anxious. With that said, how do you suggest I coach parents on supporting students prior to the return date? We know kids are picking up their cues from the adults. They’re surrounded by and many times those adults are unintentionally feeding student fears. How can I assist a family member and myself who’s super stressed and anxious, but is unwilling or unable to change patterns?

Lynn Lyons  1:22 

Yep. So here we are, right. This is the this is phase #972 of being in a pandemic. And it’s kids going back to school and teachers and administrators in schools trying to figure out how to best help. The thing that that strikes me about this. We’ll sort of go backwards, right? So, you say how can I assist a family member who is super stressed and anxious and unwilling or unable to change patterns? I don’t think that people are unable to change patterns if we can give them some help. And I think as we think about this, remember that little things matter. So, it’s not all or nothing. And if there are some small tweaks you can make in your responses with kids, those really do help. So, I’ll talk about those in a minute. So, you have reason to be to be hopeful and to be helpful even if somebody feels a little rigid in their responses.

Generally, in August, and into September, I do a ton of opening day stuff. And so sometimes I’m the keynote, and I go and they want information about managing anxiety. Sometimes it’s a more of a full day training, but normally starting in the middle of August, that’s what keeps me really busy and keeps me on the road. I’m going to be on the road a little bit, actually, some places in New Hampshire are having me come in live, but a lot of it is going to be virtual. And here’s the thing. I am more booked this August than I have been because this issue of how do we help kids come back into school and also how do we help teachers and other staff and guidance counselors, and administrators? Everybody’s really worried about the emotional health of all the people that are going to be in the building. So, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I’ve been talking about this a lot. And I’m going to talk about it a ton in the next three weeks, like hours and hours and hours.

Here’s what I would say.

Kids at this point, are anxious normally, and sometimes there’s anxiety and nervousness plus the excitement of heading back into school. This year, there’s not a whole lot of excitement that I’m hearing, the nervousness and the worry, and the disruption have absolutely taken over the excitement part of it.

So, what we want to be cognizant of is how can we insert a little bit of that excitement back in? So, if you’ve been listening to this podcast, and if you go way back and listen to when I was talking back when the pandemic started, I was really talking a lot about being playful and silly and creating moments of joy. Take that idea and think, “Now, how are you going to create some really fun rituals, some really fun celebrations that are going to mark the beginning of the school year for your kids?”

And guidance counselors, school counselors, you should be talking about this with your parents somehow conveying this information, because we’re probably not going to have the, at least in a lot of parts of the country, we’re not going to have the get your first day of school outfit on and take a picture outside and then either drive to school for your first day or get on the school bus.

A lot of that is going to be missing. So, you’ve got to create some ritual in that. So, I would still have kids have like, like some kids don’t care. I had one little girl come to see me in her first day of school outfit for kindergarten. Isn’t that so cute? She wore it to show it to me. I think that you should let kids get dressed up. And maybe it’s they’re going to get dressed up in a costume. Maybe it’s that you’re going to make them have clown faces. Maybe you’re going to have a first day of school breakfast in your house. But you’ve got to have something that conveys excitement and positive anticipation instead of dread and worry and fear, because that’s what they’re picking up from us.

So, I would have parents talk to their kids about how we are going to make the first day of school— even if it’s remote learning— how are we going to make this a fun day. Maybe you do it the day before the first day of school. There’s got to be some demarcation. And there’s got to be some fun, and there’s got to be some excitement. The other thing to remember is that kids are listening to what we say. They’re hearing us. There’s a lot of conflict going on right now in schools and school district about what it’s going to look like and whether or not it’s going to work and all of that stuff.

Make sure, parents, particularly with younger kids, that you really pay particular attention. And teachers need to do this, too, and administrators and everybody, pay attention to your catastrophic language. Pay attention to the way you’re talking about the future. I saw one thing recently. And this is completely in line with the way that I talk to kids about what’s going to happen next. But talk to them about what there is to look forward to and talk to them about what it’s going to be like, when things go back to normal.

It’s okay to have them imagine that someday we’re going to be back together with our friends, that someday you’re going to be back in your classroom. It’s okay to let them fantasize about that, because that’s going to keep them hopeful and moving into the future. And you talking in that way, as if things are going to go back to normal, even though we don’t know when, is going to keep their eye on the prize, we have to recognize that they are thinking about what comes next. And we don’t want to be catastrophic when we talk to them about that.

Robin Hutson  7:17 

When you say use the phrase “back to normal” a lot, do you feel that there is any concern about setting up expectations that there will be some sort of normal coming because they don’t understand the time? You know, we don’t want to emphasize the uncertainty of the timeline. But if we’re talking about back to normal, I could just imagine setting up expectations that school will be normal in a way that they know again,

The Importance of Positive Expectancy

Lynn Lyons  7:44 

I would say it’s not it’s going to be very different now. And we don’t know when it’s going to go back to normal. But I think when you talk about expectancy, one of the things that’s really helpful for people when they’re struggling  kids and teenagers and adults is something called positive expectancy, the belief that things will change. And so, for example, if you’ve got somebody who’s feeling really depressed, and you know, maybe they’re really suffering a bad bout of depression, it’s really important for them to maintain a belief that things will change.

So positive expectancy, and there’s a ton of research on this is a really important thing to keep people moving forward. So, I would just temper it with, it’s going to be different now. And we don’t know how long this is going to last, and it feels a little uncertain, and we’re going to have to be adaptable, but it is fun to think about what it’s going to be like when things go back to normal, because eventually they will. So, it’s okay to plant that seed because you’re planting that little seed of hope, but, but temper it with, “You know, we don’t know when it’s going to happen.” Just be aware of that.

And in developmentally, you know, little kids don’t have a sense of time. So, it’s sort of like you know, you know, the rule that if you’re planning a surprise trip, and it’s a three-year-old Don’t tell them a month ahead of time, they’re going to drive you nuts. So, for younger kids, you may want to stay away from that a little bit. But as soon as they get into like, third, fourth, fifth grade, and certainly past that, you want to make sure that you keep the hope alive. And the reality of it. We will, it will get back to normal, we just don’t know when.

Plant hopeful seeds of the future

But we don’t want them to believe that this is how it’s always going to be. And because it’s been going on now for —what is this month six?— we don’t want them to settle into this feeling of, “Oh, this is this is what my life is going to be like,” because it’s not what their life is going to be like. Just now. You can draw a little timeline, you can give them a visual, you could look at a calendar, but planting that seed about the future is going to be helpful.

Robin Hutson  9:44 

What are some of the other rituals or ways to mark that new grade that you’re hearing families discuss?

Lynn Lyons  9:51 

So, one of the things that schools are trying to figure out, and this has to do… Well, there’s a difference between schools that maybe are going into a hybrid model or some in-school learning versus schools that are going fully remote. My town, actually just at 12:35 this morning, the school board just voted for fully remote learning to start the fall. But thinking about rituals that help them move from whatever grade they were in to whatever grade they’re going into. This is not as necessary for older kids because they get it.

But for younger kids, what they missed out on at the end of last school year were all those things that help them move from second grade to third grade, like the move up day and the end-of-the-year celebrations. So, if there’s in-school learning, one of the things that I would suggest to schools, which I’m going to suggest to schools, is that they have some physical movement from one place to the next. So maybe they start in their old classroom and there’s a parade to their new classroom.

Rituals For Remote Learning

And if you’re doing remote learning, and so they don’t have that ability to physically move their body. You may as a parent or maybe teachers can do this too, is between creative about how you can sort of put the end second grade or transition from second grade into third grade.

So maybe you maybe you have two balloons, and one balloon has a big two on it. And one balloon has a big three on it. And so you pop the two balloons and you blow up the three balloons, or you bake some cookies that are shaped in twos and everybody eats the two cookies and then you wait until the first day of school and then the next day you eat the three cookies. Some sort of playful, symbolic way that helps them move from one thing to the next.

So, anything that you can do looking at pictures, maybe you have them get dressed in their favorite outfit of second grade, and then they get their new third grade outfit.  You take a little video of them wearing their grade two outfit, and then they run upstairs and they change and they come running back downstairs in their grade three outfits. Something that allows them transition so that they understand that movement. 

Because that’s what feels confusing to little kids is that we’ve, you know, had this long stretch of them not really being able to demarcate beginning and end.

Robin Hutson  12:10 

One thing that I think comes up with certain friends of mine, but not all, it goes back to the helicopter parenting episode that we did. That if you’re the kind of parent who places an extreme amount of importance around academic learning and academic performance, there’s a lot of stress of falling behind.

Lynn Lyons  12:10 

Yes.

Robin Hutson  12:10 

And, I think we should talk about that because there is a lot of dangerous language that parents would be using about that in front of their kids plus the reality of it. What is your take on the parents who are very concerned and very worried and very anxious, their kids are falling behind?

Worrying About Falling Behind Academically

Lynn Lyons  12:50 

So, the first thing I would say and parents, don’t be mad at me. You were probably one of those parents before the pandemic.  So, you need to just tone that shit down is what I’m saying.

So, and that’s it, that’s a legitimate fear. Say, you know, you’re thinking, Oh my gosh, they’re gonna fall behind. Nothing that I have read, nothing that I have been looking at, nobody in my field who deals with children going back to school is saying that we need to focus on academics. Now that sounds a little weird, right? Because schools about academics, but if you want to increase kids’ anxiety as they start the new school year, the way you’re going to do that is if you start giving them assessments and evaluations and trying to figure out where they stand academically.

That’s going to raise the level of anxiety in kids immediately. What we need to focus on, and I think that that, as I said, I am seeing this everywhere. So, I think we’re all in agreement with this is what we need to focus on is where are they socially and emotionally. What was the impact of what was going on for them while they were out of school? So, we need to really focus when they go back to school, parents, the word that you need to have tattooed inside your eyeballs is connection. They need connection, connection, connection.

So, the teachers are going to try very hard, and I think they’re going to really work on establishing relationships with kids in whatever way they can. They’re going to allow them to talk about what it was like with little kids being able to do some expressive stuff in terms of telling stories or drawing pictures so that they get a chance to process what it was like for them. Some kids may have experienced some significantly difficult things that they’re going to want to share and talk about.

Parents, your child’s academic status when they return to school, is not the focus at this point. And if they are anxious, if they are overwhelmed by whatever this school year brings, if they’re worried about all the changes and the things that they’re have to be doing in school, they’re not even going to be available for learning.

So, they’re not going to be ready for academics until we address the social and emotional relational piece of this.

So do not talk about academics. Don’t bring it up. Don’t make it an issue. I promise you it is not the thing you need to focus as they start this school year because there are bigger fish to fry. We need to take care of their emotional health, and then we can get back into the academics. But no talk about it. It’s gonna be hard for you, but just zip it. Don’t talk about it. It’s gonna be okay.

Teachers and Back To School Anxiety

School Anxiety For Teachers

Robin Hutson  15:49 

So, then the next question is really more about the wellness of our teachers who have such an unprecedented fall as well. And here’s the next listener question.

I facilitate the majority of our building-based professional development as I try to think about what the fall will look like, and I really can’t. We have a few teachers we’re really concerned about in regards to their emotional health and readiness for in-person instruction. My principal and I have discussed this at length, how do we address this with them gracefully without putting them over the edge and make them feel supported? We think they could really use some professional help. What can we do?

Lynn Lyons  16:24 

We think we’re unsure about what the Fall is going to look like. They are really struggling, as well. And remember that a lot of teachers, our parents, so many of them are trying to figure out what it’s going to be like for them doing their job, and how are they going to manage whatever challenges come up with their own kids. The first thing is that if you think that some of them can use professional help, that it really is okay to suggest that. The biggest thing right to teachers about this is to really normalize what they’re feeling rather than pathologize it.

Struggles are contextual, and to have an overwhelming sense of worry about what it’s going to look like if you are a teacher who is in a high-risk category, if you’re a teacher who is new to the job and doesn’t really have his or her feet under them in terms of teaching in general, this is a really stressful time. So I think it’s fine for you as an administrator as a support person to say to your staff in general to your faculty in general, that if you are feeling a lot of worry, a lot of fear or a lot of anxiety about what this school year will look like, you are not alone. That the ability to manage all of this uncertainty is bringing up many, many things for people, and here are some resources we have available to you.

Perhaps you bring somebody in who will meet with teachers who are having difficulty to give them some concrete strategies. Okay, so say you brought me in as an anxiety person. I would, first of all, I would normalize what they’re going through. I would ask them how it is that they are managing their whole selves, right? Which we’ve talked about before.

And I would I would introduce to them some of the really consistent and predictable patterns that we’re seeing in terms of people’s anxious thinking. So, are they thinking catastrophically? Are they seeking certainty? Or are they being really self-critical? Are they doing a lot of zooming into the future and creating sort of this narrative inside of them, I would normalize the physical symptoms that they might be feeling. So, if they’re feeling stomach issues, if they’re having headaches, be able to put this in the context that this is a normal reaction to a very abnormal situation. And if they need more support, it really is okay to ask for it.

There are some people who have anxiety disorders that are being put into this situation, and it absolutely feels like too much for them. And it really is okay for you to bring that up in a way that feels supportive rather than feeling critical or you’re not doing your job. That line that this is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation and that they’re not alone may be able to have you open up the conversation a little bit more.

Robin Hutson  19:17 

When you were in the Facebook Live, you used a phrase, “the worry rookies”. And I think that I think that there would be many schoolteachers who’ve always really loved and enjoyed their professions and the back to school time and might not recognize how they’ve been coping. Or maybe because the pandemic already has been with us for a while, maybe if there’s a dread or a fear, it’s been slowly building since last March, and it’s finally here. And there are many teachers who are struggling to manage emotions that they have never felt with this intensity before.

Lynn Lyons  19:50 

That’s a really good point. And also the thing you want to talk to teachers about is that there’s a lot of expectation that they’re supposed to be— just like we were talking about with the kids— that they’re supposed to be excited for the new school year and that this is a time that they’re getting their classrooms ready, and they’re excited to get back in the classroom. And particularly, the thing that I heard so much from teachers, as this was going on in the spring is that they really missed their students. They really miss the kids. They really missed being in the classroom. And that’s a really good point, Robin, they may be feeling like guilty that they’re not excited to go back or they have never felt this level of dread before. That maybe they’ve felt like, oh, summer’s over, but they’ve never experienced this, and they’re beating themselves up about it.

Robin Hutson  20:36 

Well, you’ve talked about this, too, in our earlier episodes when the pandemic began, that live in-person connection is simply different than what you do over a computer screen. And so, I feel for the teachers also, who are really fed by the energy that their classrooms historically brought to them. That could have been very much what kept them going.

There’s a challenge now, especially in certain school districts where the teachers of the older grades might not know their incoming students because the schools are large enough. They have professional burdens that they’ve never dealt with before.

Lynn Lyons  21:12 

Right.

Robin Hutson  21:13 

There was a phenomenal Facebook post. I think it was using the Hunger Games. Did you see this from the nurses to the teachers? No, it’s worth finding. Maybe I’ll put it in the show notes. But it was just some nurse moms writing to teacher moms about how you are going into this and managing it and how to get through it. And the nurses and the doctors and the other health workers, you know, faced this in the spring. And it was heartbreaking to read. But it was also filled with legitimate, practical advice on transmission management and personal self-care management.

You mentioned something that still stuck with me when we were talking last week. A lot of your parents have a lot of anger at the schools right now. And that just feels really misplaced blame, maybe you could talk about that.

Lynn Lyons  22:03 

It’s true. And one of the things we know during times of stress and certainly as I talk to families, there’s a lot of emotions coming out sideways. So, when people are worried and scared, and they don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, anger. Blame is one of those, unfortunately, is often the result of that. I have been talking to a lot of teachers, a lot of administrators, a lot of superintendents. They are trying so hard to figure out what’s going to work. I would not want to be in their position at all.

I haven’t talked to anybody who said to me, “Yeah, no, this is going pretty smoothly,” or “Yeah, no, no, we’ve got this figured out.” They are as concerned and feel as uncertain as the parents do. And I think that it feels good sometimes to be able to place your blame and to be angry and to expect that the schools are going to be able to have this figured out. They don’t. They don’t know what’s going to happen. There are so many moving parts. They’re trying to figure out what the difference is between little kids and big kids. They’re trying to figure out the transportation issues. And they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to feed kids that rely on school lunches, just as they had to figure out in the spring, they’re trying to figure things out, like vocational programs where hands on learning is a part of it, and they can’t do that.

They are working so hard to figure out how to make this work. And what they know is that they’re not sure they’re going to be able to pull it off. Because they don’t know what’s going to happen when kids come back to school. There are school districts that have said we’re going to do in-person learning, and parents are concerned about that. And there are school districts like mine that just said we’re going to go fully remote learning. And parents are upset about that.

There is no pleasing everybody in this because we’re all scared and nervous and concerned about what it’s going to look like, not only on the first day of school, but what is it going to look like in October.

So, if I can give one piece of advice to parents? If we’re talking about what we want to model for our kids during all of this? Empathy would really be a wonderful thing. And having your children see you put yourself in the shoes of the people that are tasked with figuring this out. So, saying to your kids, this must be really hard for all these people just like it’s hard for us. We need to show empathy, not only for ourselves, and for the people that are trying to figure this out, but to model that for our kids. It is so easy to be angry and blame right now. That is a real common thing that’s happening across our country. We’ve got a lot of anger, a lot of blame. Our kids need to see us working together.

Everybody is trying. There is nobody who I have talked to who has said “Yeah, yeah, well, we’ll just see how it goes.” They’re working. They’re trying to figure it out. And the other thing, Robin. You said the word nurses because you were talking about people in the front lines.

Let me just give a shout out to school nurses. So, if you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I love school nurses. I do a lot of training with them. They’re like my favorite people to train because they’re right on the front lines of anxiety disorders. So, I love working with school nurses because they’re in the middle of it. They’ve got the tummy aches coming into the office. They’ve got the kids who are showing up because they won’t go into the classroom.

School nurses. I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about school nurses. They are really concerned about how they’re going to manage all of this. So if you could give a little shout out to your school nurse, if you could send them a card. If you could send them an email, if it is in-person learning, if you could send in a little package of cookies or bubble gum or something. They are really trying to figure out and predict what it’s going to be like for them. Their role is critical in this. And they’re really nervous about it. Let’s just be empathic as much as we can.

Robin Hutson  26:11 

I think that’s a great idea. I actually was thinking about us suggesting that not just for school nurses, who I agree are amazing. But also, I went to a Zoom of our school districts, and I’ve never met our superintendent. And I could just tell as she was thoughtfully presenting a variety of scenarios. And it showed, even though she couldn’t say she had all of the answers. It was it was so evidently clear that she and her team were thinking through how to solve impossible problems. But they were doing it with leadership and creativity.

So, I was impressed. And I appreciate that maybe parents aren’t impressed with the way their district is headed right now. But I sent a little note. This woman doesn’t know me, but I appreciate what you’re doing. And I’m going to send the same note to our school principals and some of the teachers, too. They need this right now in a way that they never have.

Lynn Lyons  27:02 

Yeah, modeling for our kids has never been more important. It has never been more important for parents to model for their kids, the best in ourselves and what we want for our children. So, show them how to do this. Show them how you step up. It’s exactly true, Robin. They are being asked to answer unanswerable questions. They are being asked to solve unsolvable problems. They’re being asked to predict the future when the future is uncertain. They’re really trying.

I was on a call yesterday with a superintendent and all of the counselors and the principals in a school district. They are working so hard to figure this out. And it’s an impossible puzzle to solve at this point. So, let’s all just remember that, and kindness goes a long way. And it really is. Kindness is really all we have to offer. It really matters.

Robin Hutson  28:00 

So, one of the things we should think about is still making the most that we can for a back-to-school experience for our kids, as hard as this is, is to put some positivity and some enthusiasm. And I love your advice that it’s not really about the academics it’s about the connection this year and to focus on that.

And you were talking about even if it’s a remote thing, put clown makeup on or to dress up or something. I was just laughing because at our school… you know how there’s different types of spirit day dress themes? We have one dress themed day called Fancy Dress Day, and our wonderful principal always has to lead with the caveat to be sure that your fancy dress is not distracting or unsafe.  

We always laugh at like, “Boy! Little Johnny’s tuxedo is so distracting!”

Lynn Lyons  28:56 

“And little Sophie’s stilettos are just so unsafe!”

All right, so be fancy. Be fancy and safe. Which is possible, right?  Right. Yeah. So, and have some fun you know, and it just in terms of enjoying the rest of the summer and making some memories, it’s not too late. Maybe everybody, plan some special fun dinner or party…

Robin Hutson  29:27 

Or picnic.

Lynn Lyons  29:29 

A picnic. Something. Have like a make-your-own-sundae party or picnic or something. Remember, our kids need to see us being joyful. And they see the stress on our faces. They see our concern. We need to show them that we’re gonna be okay. They need that from us; they need joy. And they need laughter. Make it happen. Please, make it happen.

Robin Hutson  29:55 

Great advice, Lynn.

Lynn Lyons  29:56 

All right. Well, Robin until we meet again.

Robin Hutson  29:58 

That’s right. Just a few more of our episodes of listener questions before we launched with our new season and our new name.

Lynn Lyons  30:05 

Yes, which will be fun and fancy.

Robin Hutson  30:08 

It will be distractingly fancy.

Lynn Lyons  30:09 

Distractingly fancy. I’m married for 30 years, but if I ever, for whatever reason, have to do some sort of online dating, I think I’m going to put that in my profile. I’m distractingly fancy.

Robin Hutson  30:25 

I was just gonna say that those are two words that have been never uttered about you probably.

Lynn Lyons  30:32 

Oh well, something to aspire to.

Robin Hutson  30:35 

Bye, Lynn!

In this podcast episode on back to school anxiety, we focus on the social and emotional wellbeing for students and teachers and how parents can help.
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