Heading back to class and back to ALMOST normal!

I love the beginning of a new school year:  new pencils, notebooks, and a clean slate. Pediatricians, like educators and parents around the state, think of our year in terms of the school calendar.  I love talking to the little ones about starting kindergarten and taking the bus for the first time and I love talking to young adults as they prepare to head off to college.  Both are equally excited and nervous for the adventure ahead.  This year, my own daughter will be starting high school.  She joined me for a recent interview on WJZ about the stress and anxiety that often accompany the start of a new school year.  As a mom, I was proud of her poise and eloquence.  As a pediatrician, I was interested in what she had to say.

School anxiety is a complex subject.  New environments, new friends, and new academic expectations often trigger stress.  As we begin to emerge from the greatest educational disruption and mental health crisis we’ve seen in a century, “normal” stress levels are significantly elevated.  In addition to routine concerns, students may be worried about getting or giving COVID, deciding whether to wear a mask, or lagging behind academically because of pandemic disruptions.  Some students have not been in a traditional school setting in over two years and reentry may be difficult.

How does a parent tell the difference between normal back to school stressors and something more? Back to school anxiety is normal and may manifest as physical symptoms (headache, stomachache, fatigue); new onset attachment issues; sleeping or eating disruptions; or acting out.  These symptoms usually improve after 4-6 weeks of the new school year.  Parents may help alleviate these issues by providing routine and predictability.  If a child continues to display significant symptoms after an adjustment period, it is time to seek the advice of a pediatric health care professional.  For the parents of older children and adolescents, any acute changes should be noted and referred to their provider immediately, especially if there is any concern for self-harm.

So, load up the backpacks and pack the lunch!  Let’s hope that the 2022-23 school year is our first step in returning to “almost normal.”