As summer winds down, families are starting to get their kids ready for back-to-school preparations. Unfortunately, part of that preparation includes having some difficult conversations. The last few years have been packed with challenges that have directly impacted children and the schools they will return to.
Topics like gun violence, racial inequality, and global pandemics are immense. In today’s world, families have to learn how to discuss them with school-age children. It’s difficult for adults to navigate these emotionally charged and traumatic subjects. Expecting a child to be able to do so is additionally challenging.
Organizations that work with children and families can start by being aware of, and sensitive to, the effects that going back to school has on kids during these trying times. They can learn how to support kids while they try to make sense of things like COVID protocols and active shooter drills. Kids look to reliable adults in their lives to calm their fearsand give them answers to difficult questions.
Some kids may even directly express, “I don’t want to go back to school.” Organizations working with these children are learning how to skillfully respond. Dealing with returning to an environment they may not feel safe in can cause immense anxiety.
Helping Kids Get Ready for Back to School
School is a very different environment than it was for past generations. Not to say there wasn’t childhood trauma;there have always been kids that come from abusive households, live in poverty, witness violence at home, and face racial inequality. Those issues are not new.
But schools once provided a refuge for children dealing with adverse circumstances. They were a way to escape abusive home lives or dangerous communities.
Kids today have to grapple with not knowing if they’ll be safe in the classroom in addition to any adverse experiences they may be having. After extended closures caused by the pandemic and the recent tragedy at Uvalde Elementary School, it’s understandable to feel uncertain. Some kids try to make sense of these issues on their own. That can lead to increased anxiety and the sense of being very much alone in their fears.
One thing organizations can do to help them cope with their anxiety about getting ready for back to school is to manage their own emotions while kids are in their care. If children hear the adults around them expressing fear and anxiety about the state of the school system, and the world, they will surely absorb it.
It is certainly understandable that professionals working with children deal with difficult feelings of their own. There should be space to talk through them with other emotionally adept adults within the organization. Processing with colleagues will make supporting the kids easier.
Addressing the Parent’s Fears First
Children are constantly picking up on their parent’s or caregivers’ cues. As a result of seemingly endless turmoil, these adults are grappling with their own fears. Sending their children back to the classroom feels dangerous for many. If parents and caregivers are experiencing anxiety around safety at school, their children sense it.
Organizations working with children and their families can help the kids by first addressing their parent’s concerns. Counselors, health care professionals, and childcare providers all work directly with children but they also interact with parents.
So what should be done if a child is exhibiting fear about getting ready for back to school after a tragedy? Having a conversation with the parents or caregivers is a good first step.
Since the start of the pandemic, a lot of people have depended on the media for information and guidance. Additional political, social, and public health concerns have also emerged. Suggesting to parents and caregivers that they turn off the news can help them stop the constant reinforcement that there is cause for alarm.
Instead, they might find some way to take action. They could join the PTA or get involved with the school board to help support the children and improve safety protocols. Parents and caregivers can become empowered by focusing on solutions rather than problems.
When a Child Says, “I Don’t Want to Go Back to School”
Some children’s anxiety about returning to school doesn’t originate from their parents and caregivers. Older children who are able to understand the gravity of tragic events and complex social issues may need someone to process with.
Kids may even state explicitly, “I don’t want to go back to school.” Organizations and trusted adults should be prepared to talk through objections. Validating the fears of a child, even a teenager, helps them to feel heard and understood. It’s important to allow children to feel their feelings exactly as they arise. Avoidance will leave them feeling alone with feelings they don’t know how to handle.
It’s important to use language appropriate for the age of the child. Discussing complex concepts with children too young to understand will only cause confusion. Using simple language and focusing on their feelings is best with younger children.
When students are scared to return to school, reassurance is often all they need. Children are most concerned about the safety of loved ones and the immediate environment. They may simply need to hear that there are no threats in their community. Feeling like there’s a distance between them and the source of the media headlines could allay anxiety.
Tools and Resources to Help Children Deal With School-Related Anxiety and Trauma
Getting children ready for back to school in the aftermath of a traumatic event or public health crisis requires that organizations help them feel safe.
Children who say, “I don’t want to go back to school,” and refuse to go will need extra support. Professionals and organizations who work with children who experience fear when returning to school may also need support.
We are committed to helping organizations learn how to engage in difficult conversations with children who are working through anxiety and trauma. At The Center on Child Wellbeing & Trauma, we provide tools and resources to assist you in providing the most supportive care possible for the children you work with that need it most. Contact us to learn more.