Arts and Humanities Health and Medicine

How to support children’s mental health during the school year

University psychology scholars give parents and guardians some pointers about how to help lower their children’s anxiety levels during what may be a challenging school year with a new spike in COVID-19 cases.
child anxiety

As kids head back to classrooms, there will be a mix of emotions intertwined with their return.

While many will be happy to see their friends and teachers in person again, there is still a layer of COVID-19 apprehension lurking in the background. In fact, research indicates that adult anxiety during the pandemic is 30 to 40 percent higher than usual, and from what little research has been done on children, the trends mirror those of adults. Therefore, kids are likely feeling more overwhelmed than during a typical academic year, University of Miami child psychologists agree.

Rebecca Bulotsky Shearer
Rebecca Bulotsky-Shearer

“It’s not unusual for kids to be fearful about school starting,” said Rebecca Bulotsky-Shearer, an associate professor of psychology. “It’s the unknown, but it’s also been a long time since we had a ‘normal’ in person start to school, so everyone is adjusting to a new routine.”

Although it’s natural for kids to feel uneasy about a new school yearparticularly for those starting in a new buildingparents and guardians can help their children bridge the transition, University of Miami psychologists contend.

  • Bulotsky-Shearer is an early childhood expert, as well as a former school, child, and community psychologist who directs the Early Childhood Social and Emotional Readiness Lab, which works to promote social-emotional and academic readiness among low-income students.
  • Psychology professor Jill Ehrenreich-May is an expert on child and teen anxiety and directs the Child and Adolescent Mood and Anxiety Treatment Program, which offers cognitive behavioral therapy to children who struggle with depression and anxiety.
  • Professor Amanda Jensen-Doss is director of the child division in the Department of Psychology and of the Child Implementation and Effectiveness Lab. Her research centers on increasing access to evidence-based child mental health services.

The experts offered some tips for parents and guardians on how to handle children and their reactions.

Children’s reactions will be mixed. Some can better regulate their emotions, while others find new situations more threatening.

Amanda Jensen Doss
Amanda Jensen-Doss

“Some kids will be really excited to get back to school, but others will have a hard time separating from their parents or transitioning to a new class or school building,” said Jensen-Doss. “Going back to school means facing other kids for most of the day, as well as the academic stress of classes. And to some kids these may be uncomfortable adjustments.”

Model confidence that your child’s school has made all students’ safety a priority, even if you are still worried about any COVID-19 exposure.

“This year will be different, and there may be some situations where many kids feel less safe than usual, but we know that parents who send messages of uncertainty may accidentally be making their child feel more anxious,” said Ehrenreich-May. “Parents can set a tone regardless of the situation; and in letting our kids go to school, it’s accepting a certain amount of risk and also accepting that schools have a plan to keep them as safe as possible.”

Jensen-Doss added: “Kids are very sensitive to our own anxieties. So, if we’re freaking out, they’re going to pick up on it and be more anxious.”

Create a predictable and consistent weekday routine at home.

Jill Ehrenreich May
Jill Ehrenreich-May

Some key messages that we get from national research, as well as our own research on childhood anxiety (both during COVID-19 and beforehand) point to the fact that the more things feel normal to kids, the more their anxiety decreases, according to Ehrenreich-May.

Jensen-Doss agreed. “We know that one way to support children is to have things be predictable, so they know what to expect,” she said.

Prepare kids to gradually adjust to a schedule and lifestyle.

A gradual preparation might include starting a regular bedtime a few days before school starts and practicing the morning routine to get out the door, Bulotsky-Shearer said. She also recommended limiting the amount of time spent playing video games up to a week before school begins.

“Try to get back to an established structured routine. Because there are a lot of things for kids to adjust to; and especially for little ones, it’s important that they get enough sleep,” Bulotsky-Shearer added.

Also, practice any experience you anticipate your child may be nervous aboutbe it socialization or going out of the house, Jensen-Doss pointed out. For example, if they aren’t used to seeing other kids often, organize a play date or go out more to acclimate them to being in public before the first day of school.

For younger children, help your child mentally and physically prepare for school by reading books about it; and if possible, by visiting their classroom and meeting their teacher(s) before school begins.

If visiting the classroom, parents and guardians can also share some of the child’s favorite things with the teacher to help create a bond. But even older children who are moving to a new school get a little jittery about the first day, Bulotsky-Shearer explained. Talk to them, at their level, about what to expect at every setting,  she said.

At times, parents and guardians should step back and fight the instinct to rescue their child from a stressful situation.

Avoid swooping in for the rescue. For example, if your child is in school and a classmate near them is not masked, you need to trust their ability to use social distancing to protect themselves or for them to ask the other child to put on their mask, Ehrenreich-May noted.

“Many parents today may be understandably more accommodating and protective of their child because of the safety threats that exist but expressing confidence in your child in short intermittent bursts can really help,” she added. “Whereas if the parent swoops in to rescue the child immediately, in the future, that child will be less confident navigating challenging situations by themselves. And in this case, may be less confident in school.”

In partnership with The Children’s Trust, Ehrenreich-May’s clinic designed a 40-minute course, Project EMPOWER, to help parents and guardians manage accommodation and reduce child anxiety. Enroll for free here.

Listen to children’s fears if they share them. And answer questions simply.

Simple answers are best. And this advice can apply to teachers, parents, and guardians, according to Bulotsky-Shearer.

“We need to recognize that everything that’s happened in the past year and a half has been very disruptive for children, so we need to establish relationships with children who are struggling to help reassure them before learning can really happen again,” she said.

Also, if they are worried about COVID-19 or have questions, parents and guardians should validate the child’s concerns and answer questions on a basic level, but not overly reassure them about things that are out of their control.

“Whenever a child has a legitimate fear, we want to be fair and share brief factual information, and then think about ways the child can mitigate their risk together,” Ehrenreich-May said. “You can give short, simple explanations like ‘being at school is safe,’ ‘wearing your mask keeps you safer,’ and ‘I know you’ve got this.’ ”

Learn their school policy on COVID-19.

If you know your child’s school policy, you can assuage their worries and explain exactly what the school is doing to keep them safe. For example, “we are wearing masks, washing our hands, and keeping our distance,” Jensen-Doss said. For younger kids, there are also picture stories that can be used to explain the importance of wearing masks, Bulotsky-Shearer indicated.

“Conveying to kids that there are rules in place to help them stay safe may help ease their fears about it,” she added. “We can’t promise they won’t get COVID-19, but we can say the school is doing its best.”

Most children will adapt to school within a few days, psychologists agree. But if your child is reluctant or afraid to join new situations for weeks, does not want to do things they typically would enjoy, or are having severe reactions (like out-of-control tantrums or avoidance behaviors) to certain things, this may indicate they need the guidance of a mental health professional, Ehrenreich-May noted.

“The good thing about anxiety is it’s very treatable,” she said, adding that typically in about 12 to 16 sessions, children will grasp new skills to overcome their fears.


To learn more about the CAMAT clinic or to seek treatment for your child, visit its website. Parents and guardians can also find help for their children on the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies website.

There is also a virtual Back to School town hall on Friday, at 12 p.m., hosted by the University’s Mailman Center for Child Development, for all families of school-aged children. Register here.

For resources on speaking with your child about COVID-19 or dealing with stress, click here. For teacher resources on mask-wearing, click here.