Dr. Margi McCombs: Back to school jitters – 3 ways to help children regain a sense of normalcy

“Hey Finn,” I said to my 10-year-old grandson while we ran errands. “How do you feel about starting school again?” He shrugged. “Well, I guess I’m excited about seeing my friends, but I wonder if I’ll be safe? I’m too young to get a vaccine. I mean, that’s why we had to learn at home in the first place, right?”  

For parents and children alike, the past 18 months have been a time of great loss in our social networks, our activities, our learning, and our overall mental health. Even in the best of times, children have anxiety as they grow up. Looking to their families, friends and educators for stability, they rely heavily on us to offer them certainty and a foundation to cope with a changing world. 


But for over a year, many of us have been in survival mode – balancing work, family, remote learning, health and more – while we’ve tried to raise resilient children who can emerge stronger on the other side of a global pandemic. 

According to the Children’s Hospital Association, kids have faced strong effects from the past year and a half: watching adults navigate stress, possibly losing a loved one, developmental issues, educational inequality, and fewer wellness checks to name just a few. Additionally, a Lurie Children’s Hospital poll revealed, “71% of parents believe the pandemic has taken a toll on their child’s mental health, 69% say the pandemic is the worst thing to happen to their child, and 67% wish they’d been more vigilant about their child’s mental health from the beginning.” 


If all seems dismal, it isn’t. According to the same report, we have something to celebrate: Of the parents polled, “87% said they are spending more quality time with their children and 78% said they are showing more affection to their children than before the pandemic.” 

This is the foundation upon which we can build a generation of children who are resilient and can withstand challenges that will create a firmer foundation for their future. The experience over the next few months of bouncing back and restarting school will stay with them for the rest of their lives.   

More from Opinion

As our children head back to school, we want to help them flourish in unexpected ways, and we do this by first recognizing where they are.  

Here are three ways we can help our children emotionally rebound and start the school year well. 

First, help them build trust. 

COVID-19 led to a shutdown of nearly all school buildings in K-12 across the United States in the spring of 2020. One minute, our kids were engaging in school activities, after-school sports, playdates and camps. The next, everything was closed. 

As parents, we want to protect our kids. But with an unknown virus circling the globe, we simply haven’t known how best to do that. As our own fears rose, so too did our children’s. With schools now reopening, the biggest hurdle we face is helping our kids feel safe again. When children don’t feel safe, anxiety can build and bubble over.  

The best way to assess how our kids are feeling is to ask questions. 

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