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BACK FOR THE FIRST TIME Part 1

When COVID-19 restrictions ease, students and educators must adapt and prepare for a return to schools. School staff will need to support students in the transition back to the classroom, and at the same time manage their own transition and anxiety.

This article provides suggestions for school staff on how to support this transition, particularly for anxious students. While the focus is on preparing for school reopening, these tips can also help educators prepare for transitions back to a virtual classroom.

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1. Validate, support, and listen to students

The recent events will likely have had substantial impacts on students’ mental health. They may be experiencing a host of emotions in regard to the announcement of new changes, including anxiety, disappointment, and anger.

As educators, it is important to listen to students’ concerns and, even if the emotions are extreme, express understanding and empathy. Letting families know you understand and appreciate their perspective will help open up a dialogue for problem solving.

2. Be honest and encouraging, rather than reassuring

Anxious students will likely need some initial assurance from trusted adults and teachers that returning to school is okay.

However, blanket reassurance statements (e.g., everything will be fine; there is nothing to be worried about) can be invalidating and can create doubt and uncertainty that may drive a need for further reassurance. This cycle can lead to what is known as excessive reassurance seeking.

If students continue to seek reassurance, staff can encourage tolerance of uncertainty and teach students to use realistic thinking skills or learn to problem-solve and come up with solutions to their own concerns where possible – “What can you do here to calm yourself down?” or “What options do we have here instead of just avoiding?”

3. Encourage a gradual approach, not avoidance

No amount of planning will prevent students from being anxious. Therefore, encouraging tolerance of fear and anxiety, rather than avoidance, will be essential. While being understanding and validating of students’ anxiety, school staff should encourage and reinforce families in making attempts to face fears around returning to school.

4. Praise and reward students for being courageous

As students return to school, praise them for showing courage in the face of fear and let them know that being brave and courageous will help them (and you and your fellow staff) get through this together.

When you see a student or fellow staff member do something that you know is hard for them or provokes anxiety, let them know you’ve noticed it and are proud of them for facing their fears courageously.

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