Anxiety at school is not a new phenomenon, however, teachers and parents alike recognise that there has been a significant increase in the prevalence of anxiety among children in the past year, as a result of COVID-19, pandemic lockdowns, and measures to ensure the safety of children, who are back at school or in the process of returning.

Anxiety is not to be dismissed or taken lightly, but the good news is that parents and teachers can take steps to ensure they firstly, recognise red flags in children and then respond appropriately, should there be concerns that a child is taking strain emotionally, an education expert has stated.

“Teachers and parents can recognise the onset of anxiety when a sudden change in behaviour becomes apparent and continues for at least three weeks or longer,” said Dr Jacques Mostert at ADvTECH.

He stated that some of the signs to look out for include inattention and restlessness, attendance problems and clingy kids, disruptive behaviour that is not typical of the young person, trouble answering questions in class, an increase in problems generally, which could include a marked downturn in academic performance in certain subjects where usually there wasn’t a problem and if non-neurotypical difficulties are ruled out, such as ADHD or dyslexia.

Finally, if a child starts avoiding socialising or group work, attention must be paid.

“Anxiety is your body’s normal reaction to perceived danger or important events. It is like your body’s internal alarm system that is set to alert you of dangers that may be life threatening and it helps your body to prepare to deal with danger. However, your internal alarm is not very good at recognising whether the danger you may face is indeed life threatening or not. For example, your body reacts by becoming nervous about being late to school and seeing a big spider in the bathroom in the same way. Neither are likely to cause real damage, yet your body remains alert and ready to run away in either case,” he said.

Dr Mostert explained that anxiety or feeling nervous are normal emotions and can be expected during times of transition and change, especially during times of unprecedented disruption like the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Many parents also remain concerned regarding children’s safety from the virus at school.

“While you as parent may be stressed about safety and COVID-19 safety procedures, this can be put in context by considering the excellent track records of schools where children have returned. If a parent has concerns about the anxiety of a child following the identification of symptoms which persist over weeks, they need to start tackling the problem at home, as the first line of response,” he added.

Routine is key in this, he noted. The first important step is to reinstate regular routines, including in the morning and evening. Nobody copes well when they are tired or hungry. Anxious children often don’t feel like eating breakfast, they might not feel hungry, or become nauseous after eating breakfast, so start making sure that your child gets back in the habit of getting some nutrition before heading to school.

“Also, make sure that your child wakes up early enough to avoid rushing to get to school. This of course means that you must ensure that your child goes to bed early enough, at a regular time. If your child spends hours before going to sleep on a device or social media, this is a habit that needs to end. It is not healthy for children or adults, for that matter,” he continued. Dr Mostert notes that if a child becomes unusually quiet, or starts to ramble, this can also be an indication that they are anxious about returning to school.

In addition, there are practical ways to deal with anxiety in the moment, which include: practicing deep breathing, taking a break and going outside, talking about anxiety openly and objectively, getting moving, walking and talking, practicing positive thinking and keeping a gratitude journal and trying to eat as healthy as is possible and drinking enough water.

“Adults should keep in mind that they play an important role in supporting children during this time to direct attention away from the concerns about friends, teachers, homework and COVID-19, by instead directing their thoughts toward the positives of seeing their friends, building relationships and new friendships, having the opportunity to interact with teachers and the safe environment of the school,” he concluded.

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