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Addressing Back-to-School Anxiety: 5 Guiding Principles to Ensure a Smooth Transition

The beginning of the school year can be filled with anxiety for everyone–educators, students, and families. This is especially true this school year as districts and schools try to create a new sense of normalcy. Counselors can use these five guiding principles to support a smooth transition as they welcome their school communities back this year.

SchooLinks Staff
SchooLinks Staff

Aug 22, 2022

For the past several months, as schools and districts have planned for the opening of the 2022/23 school year, there has been a strong emphasis on finally returning to a “normal” school year: a school year without Covid-related worries; a year that is not dominated by quarantines and health protocols; a year free of constant interruptions and transitions. 

However, despite this wishful thinking and planning, it is impossible for things to simply revert back to how they used to be. Students are coming into the school year with academic, social, and behavioral gaps and challenges stemming from the previous three Covid-disruprted school years. Educators are once again having to shift their approaches from the previous year based on new guidelines and protocols. And, all community members–educators, students, and families–are exhausted and still healing from the collective and individual hardships experienced during this time. Because of this, many of our administrators, teachers, counselors, students, parents, and caregivers are feeling a distinct sense of hesitation, worry, fear, or doubt as they return to schools and classrooms. Even some of those who usually lead the positive energy within a school community seem to be struggling to find their groove. 

School counselors are trusted community members who can acknowledge, engage, and respond to the individual and collective anxieties that compromise learning and development. Counselors can be leaders within school buildings to help administrators, teachers, families, and students transition into the school year amidst this challenging context. Building on strategies and best practices that counselors regularly apply to their work with students and families, these five guiding principles can help everyone in the first weeks and months of this school year.

Acknowledge where everyone is.

One of the hardest things about feeling some hesitation during the back-to-school season is that it can be very isolating. There is a certain expectation that everyone is excited to be back and ready to start a new school year.

Counselors can broaden the back-to-school conversations to allow space for their colleagues, students, and families to express feelings of hesitation or anxiety. This process can help individuals feel seen and can create community and connection with others who are sharing similar feelings. And, with this open approach, counselors are likely to learn more about the needs of their community and how they can best support students and families.   

Listen, and encourage others to listen as well.

During the past three school years, relationships were fractured and connections between schools and families and students and educators became untethered. Many individuals felt separated from their school community. Taking time to thoughtfully listen to others is a primary step to building connections and trust, both of which are vitally important this school year.

Counselors can model active and supportive listening for their community and create opportunities for everyone to share their experiences, thoughts, and insights with one another. Students and educators, alike, should be reminded that one of the most powerful supportive behaviors they can do is to listen to each other.

 

Be thoughtful about communication, routines, and procedures.

A major cause of back-to-school anxiety is uncertainty. Many educators, counselors, and other school-based personnel are meeting and getting to know new administrators and colleagues. Many secondary students are unsure of new schedules, new teachers, and new routines. Many primary students are worried about their first days and weeks with their new teacher and new classmates. Schools can help ease much of this uncertainty by ensuring that communication and planning is thoughtful and considers how the information will be received. When communication is clear, routines are efficient, and effective procedures are in place, everyone feels more comfortable and at ease.

Counselors can take time to consider how students and families might be feeling and work to provide information that will get ahead of questions or concerns. And, they can make a special effort to connect with students and families who have not engaged with the school in the first days and weeks to ensure they have all of the information they need for a successful school year. 

 

Help to establish a more relaxed pace.

There is a lot of new information to cover in the first days and weeks of school. Administrators often feel pressure to cover everything they want their teachers to know, and teachers and counselors work to ensure that students rapidly learn all school routines and requirements so they can quickly pivot to academic content. The volume of information to be internalized and the frantic pace educators often manifest often produces more anxiety, with everyone feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

Counselors can help to slow this frenetic back-to-school race of information by leading with a sense of calm and helping to remind administrators, school leaders, and educators that having some open spaces in schedules can be beneficial to educator and student wellbeing. A steady cadence, and visible patience, leads to long-term success. Time to process information or practice applying new routines and procedures helps to set the foundation for productive academic learning. 


Take time to laugh, move, and connect.

Counselors can encourage educators to create room in their schedules for unstructured breaks, classroom conversations, and other opportunities that help to meet students’ social and emotional needs. Breaks in academic learning where students can move around, talk with one another, and just enjoy being together can help all students–from kindergarten through twelfth grade–to feel more at ease. Classroom conversations, either during classroom meetings or informal in-the-moment discussions, can help students to connect with one another and educators. And, working in daily doses of laughter and joy can go a long way in helping students–and even educators–to feel comfortable at school, nurture strong relationships, and, ultimately, cultivate deep engagement within a school community.  Play, both in spirit and practice, increases enjoyment, persistence, and learning for everyone in school.

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