Students across North America are back in the classroom this month – in person, or online – and the debate over what school should look like is causing anxiety not just in students but in teachers and parents alike. Parents are torn trying to do the ‘right thing’ for their kids and their families and the stress has been daunting – for some, it’s becoming toxic.

Dr. Christine Korol is a registered psychologist, Director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre, and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychology at UBC. For over 20 years, Dr. Korol has been helping people manage stress, anxiety, and mental health. Over the last two months, she has seen a shift in her practice, and that of her colleagues, with increased numbers of parents and teachers seeking help for pandemic-related anxiety, burdened by the decisions (and fear) of if and how to ‘go back to school’.

Every August, I see kids worried about the start of the school year. This is the first year I’ve also had to help parents and teachers; and it’s also the first time I’ve had to tell people that fears about returning to school are well-founded. 

I am encouraging my patients to speak up about those fears to decision-makers. I remind them that policies are being rolled out at the speed of light, and there is no time for the pilot tests and focus groups that are useful when developing new programs. Feedback from all stakeholders will help to get these guidelines right. 

Deciding I should practice what I preach, I thought I should chime in with a few of my concerns as a psychologist who treats anxiety. Here are a few suggestions for decision-makers if they want to help everyone have a stress-free start to the school year:

1. Build trust. One of the best ways to increase trust is to be clear and transparent in your messaging. Psychotherapy research is clear that you can improve outcomes by providing patients with a clear rationale for your intervention. The same appears to be true in the public health literature. This is especially important when the science changes almost daily. Public Health and Education Ministers could reduce confusion and anxiety by explaining to the public how you are using science to make decisions, for example: Why are you prohibiting large gatherings but school is going forward? 

Building trust should also include input from experts in debunking conspiracy theories. A recent survey from Carleton University found that nearly half of the public believes some myth about COVID-19. Public health officials need to ask for constant feedback and learn what misconceptions and problems need to be addressed. Listening to people fosters trust.

2. Show, don’t tell. It is difficult for everyone (not just young people) to go against social norms. People have a hard time saying no because they don’t want to seem rude, difficult or foolish. Public health offices should guide people on how to resist pressure to violate safety guidelines. Showing people how to say no, kindly and firmly, can increase self-efficacy and improve compliance with health guidelines. It can also reduce anxiety if people believe they have some autonomy and choice in a situation.

3. Aim for the Right Amount of Concern. A recent article in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (April 2020) by Craig Harper and colleagues found that the biggest predictor of compliance (eg. handwashing, social distancing) was fear of contracting COVID-19. Despite speculation about how measures to reduce COVID-19 have been politicized, there was no evidence that political orientation predicted adherence to public health recommendations in this study. 

However, this creates a new problem, as excessive anxiety can interfere with effective learning from all those participating in the education system. Balancing the concerns, emotions, needs and responsibilities of parents, teachers and students alike, and ensuring that they understand their part of the equation, will go a long way in creating a plan that balances the needs of most. Parents who are too anxious may find themselves unable to let their children go back to school. Others may feel like they are doing so under duress. Anxious teachers may have difficulty focusing on their jobs. Adults who cannot regulate their anxiety, in general, cannot calm anxious children. Anxious children will then have difficulty learning (defeating the point of returning to school). 

Public health and school officials would be well advised to keep this in mind. It is important to orient students and teachers to the seriousness of COVID-19 and to take measures to prevent it. It is equally important to avoid scare tactics and shame in doing so. Emphasis needs to be placed on increasing confidence that we can learn to attend school safely if we all follow the guidelines. Further interventions, to reduce stress and increase emotional regulation in the classroom are also needed.

4. Dial it back to achieve more. School officials and governments need to reassure parents who are concerned about their children falling behind. If we can just get through the next couple of years safe and sound we’ve won. Calculus and Shakespeare will still be there when we are ready to go back to school. Teachers are also experts at modifying curriculum for kids who have missed school due to serious illness or who have learning disabilities. They can do the same for all kids impacted by the pandemic (hopefully, with support this time from school boards and officials). Trying to push through the curriculum as if nothing has changed will, however, create undue stress and anxiety for parents, teachers, and kids. It’s also unnecessary for good learning outcomes.

For example, Finland has some of the best educational outcomes without focusing on cramming as much info as possible into kids’ heads. There is no homework, lots of time playing outside, and only one optional standardized test. Finland has shown the world that working harder doesn’t always lead to better outcomes. Although we won’t have Finland’s smaller teacher to student ratio or curriculum, I’m curious to see if some school districts can implement some Finnish ideas as a result of the pandemic to help kids continue to thrive in school.

COVID-19 is here to stay and the majority of the changes we need to make to get through difficult times are behavioral. Greater attention to how we change behavior, foster cooperation, and increase compliance are needed now more than ever. Ignoring this fact will only lead to increased anxiety and reduced compliance making the pandemic more dangerous and difficult for all of us.