Distance Learning School Anxiety—How to Create Calm Through Play

With the 2020/21 school year under way and various education options implemented nationwide, parents and kids alike are feeling a full spectrum of emotions. Many parents are searching for ways to best help their children emotionally process these new educational guidelines.

Understanding Emotions

Sometimes having an understanding of what your child may be experiencing helps guide your tools. Here are some emotions your child may be feeling as they start this new school year:

  • Returning to brick and mortar: Excited to see their friends, anxious about wearing a mask or seeing others in masks, confused about social distancing, scared of getting sick or being around others.
  • Online learning: Bored, distracted by being home rather than a focused learning environment, unsupported as they miss face-to-face guidance from teachers, isolated and lonely to be away from peers.
  • Hybrid: Disappointed to be going to  school on opposite days than friends, relieved to split-up their week between home and school, overwhelmed by juggling in-person and online learning.
  • Homeschool: At peace with learning from home, nervous (if homeschooling is new), concerned they won’t see their friends.

If you notice behavior changes such as emotional outbursts, shutting down or withdrawing, developmental regressions, or variations in eating or sleeping, recognize these signs as communication that your child may be having trouble processing their feelings and organizing their experiences regarding this new school year.

Here are a few ways to support children through their transitions this back to school season: 

1. Validate emotions. 

Become curious to what feelings your child may be experiencing this year. Ask and encourage them to share in a safe environment such as the family’s Calming Corner. Affirm your child’s fears and emotions to let them know they are valid, allowed, and heard.

2. Use storytelling.

The work of Dr. Daniel Seigel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute,showcases the power of connecting both hemispheres of the brain through storytelling to help children make sense of their experience and help them move to a place where they feel better about the situation.

As parents, we can help integrate the right, emotional side of the brain with the left, logical side of the brain in small moments of connection throughout the day. You may prompt with something like, “Tell me a story about your first week of school.”

For younger children or a child who is not ready to share, you may choose to begin the story and ask them to fill in the details about what happened and how they felt.

For older children or those comfortable with this process, ask them to replay their story through words, writing, or art.

Sometimes children feel more comfortable sharing through role playing, in the dark before bed, or when distracted with other things like coloring.

3. Give space and time. 

If your child communicates that they are not interested in discussing their anxious thoughts, give them space and talk later. For a healthy dialogue to occur, it is important for both you and your child to be in a regulated state of mind.

4. Teach your child the power of thought.  

As your child begins to feel comfortable naming their feelings and fears, teach your child how to further examine them. Ask your child to identify the thought that is creating their pleasant or unpleasant emotion. Let your child know that they can change their feelings with their thoughts, and then guide them in exploring new perspectives to their experience.

·         What is something positive that has come from this schooling option?

·         What would you like to see happen this school year?

·         What are you grateful for this school year?

5. Create mantras. 

When we focus on the now, it helps to decrease the anxiety of what has yet to happen and the sadness about what already has. Practice new mantras that help your child revisit the present moment. You may say something like, “In this moment, I am safe, healthy, and happy” and repeat this phrase during anxious moments.

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