Back to school anxiety

Adverse effect of diving headlong into schooling

After a year and a half of being cooped up in homes, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children are set to go back to school, if they are not already. While some kids will be excited about meeting their peers and teachers, others, particularly the younger children, may feel overwhelmed in a new social environment. In some, forced out of their comfort zone, this may create separation anxiety. The anxiety about being separated from families, after being together for so long will only be compounded by fears of loved ones falling prey to the virus. To top it all off these kids have drilled into them various health precautions such as to not get too close to other people, to keep their masks on, use sanitizer and to wash their hands repeatedly. Anxiety is in the air and kids cannot help but feel it. Hopefully, the excitement of going back will outweigh the potential anxiety. In any case, it is bound to be a tough re-entry.

by Sajitha Prematunge

Ferdinando was apprehensive about the reopening of schools, and the fear of contracting COVID-19 had little to do with it. Her school is due to reopen next week and for teachers like her, student social anxiety is very real. The previous lockdowns set many of her students at the S. Mahinda Vidyalaya, Kalutara, several steps back in terms of education, as well as social interaction.

“Most of these kids are eager to come back to school since they are not well provided for at home,” said Nadee Ferdinando. It is heartbreaking to see kids turn up at school, after a year and a half long lockdown, emaciated. “When they are at school their friends share their food with them.” She observed that this is most pronounced in remote schools. Emotional and nutritional needs of students’ of such schools, are often neglected by parents who are low income earners. She observed a general lethargy and lack of concentration, immediately after the reopening of schools, after previous lockdowns. “It set them back several steps. They find it difficult to concentrate, they don’t answer questions and can’t absorb anything in the first few days. Some of them just sat there stupefied. It took time for them to come back to normal, after the previous lockdowns,” said Ferdinando.

From her experience of previous lockdowns, she knows better than to dive headlong into academic activities. “So, we just stick to activities, like singing and dancing.” Ferdinando observed that it is not only the younger kids who are affected. After a stifling lockdown, cooped in their homes, kids as old as 13 require to be coaxed out of their shells with mundane gossip. “Above all they need to socialise and interact,” said Ferdinando.

Psychological perspective

Karapitiya Teaching Hospital, Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr. Rumi Ruben pointed out that children are the group most adversely affected by the pandemic. “Being homebound, due to various regulations, lockdowns, restrictions in movement and health concerns, has been most stressful for children,” said Ruben. He pointed out that lockdowns have both pros and cons, pros being, being able to spend a lot of time with other family members, and cons also being, having to spend a lot of time with other family members, cooped up in a small house. “Kids of all ages, in the same house, can lead to fighting over resources,” said Ruben. Add to the mix sibling rivalry and it would be enough to drive any sane kid slowly mad.

He explained that during the past one and half years since school was out, apart from being deprived of education in the conventional sense, kids have been starved of recreation and time with peers. This is detrimental to kids’ personal development. Social interaction, reduced due to lockdowns, has blunted kids’ social and communication skills, which in turn has hampered their ability to express emotions. In this context, Ruben emphasises the significance of student-teacher interactive communication.

Online education

Online education cannot compare with the physical proximity afforded by a classroom. “Neither can teachers monitor the progress of students nor can students, counter question teachers,” Ruben pointed out. Besides, at school kids play with others their age and even fight. They also missed out on all the extracurricular activities, such as dancing and singing. “The deprivation of all this hampers social learning, which is vital for personal development.”


The pandemic provided an ideal opportunity to gauge the inequality in our so-called free education. Laptops, tabs or mobile phones and internet access to take part in online classes did not come free and was beyond the capacity of most daily wage earners, the worst affected, economically, by the pandemic. The same extends to provision of basic needs such as food and nutritional needs as well as keeping children happy in general by meeting their emotional needs, such as by buying them toys and other trinkets. “Such circumstances invariably affect children’s psychology,” said Ruben.

“Another adverse effect of online education was the exposure to sexual material and addiction to gaming, now recognised by the WHO as a mental illness. “Gaming addiction entails withdrawal symptoms such as lack of concentration, anger management issues and withdrawal from other social activities.” Ruben pointed out that all these affect children’s communication.

Illness phobia

According to him, illness phobia, the fear of falling sick and dying or losing loved ones to an illness, in the current context, exacerbated by media coverage of the pandemic, and harping on the death toll, could lead to emotional neediness in children. “Clinginess in such children could lead to reluctance to separate from parents; separation anxiety. Children may refuse to go to school outright,” said Ruben. Such conditions could manifest in the form of social anxiety as well, characterised by irritability, loss of appetite and quarrelling with siblings.

In turn, social anxiety can manifest in the form of depressive symptoms. “Kids may refuse to study, may be irritable and may have difficulty falling asleep or have nightmares. These can exacerbate into medically unexplainable physical symptoms, such as stomach aches or headaches.” So the usual excuse for not wanting to go to school cannot be idly brushed aside. Ruben indicated that they could get physical if forced to conform to the new norm. “They could turn physically violent if parents force them to study or go to school. They may start to consider parents as enemies,” said Ruben. He suggested that phobic symptoms towards COVID-19 should be alleviated by reassurance and providing accurate information.

Adjustment period

Ruben reiterated the importance of allocating an adjustment period so that students could be afforded adequate time to adjust to the new environment. He warned against overburdening kids too early. “What all parties concerned; parents, teachers, education authorities, must understand is that covering the syllabus, should not be the priority. During this adjustment period students must not be overloaded.” Lest it turns into a sort of ‘school phobia’. Ruben recommended that education authorities formulate a revised syllabus to include only vital aspects.

“This adjustment period must be used to monitor students and identify those who display troubling symptoms, so that through parental mediation, they could be referred to a doctor for psychological support.”

Changes to a child’s environment, and stress, are risk factors for developing anxiety and going back to school after a long hiatus have all the right ingredients for anxiety. Some kids are too young to grasp the concept of acceptable risk. In this context it is also the parents’ responsibility to placate any lingering misgivings children may have about going back to school.

Thank you

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