How to Get Kids Excited About Going Back to School When They May Be Anxious? We Asked Top Therapists

There’s no sugar coating it: School will look very different this fall. And yet, if there’s any reason to be hopeful, it’s that all throughout lockdown, our kids have shown us how remarkably resilient and adaptive they are. It’s because of our little heroes that we want to do our very best to provide them with everything they need when school is back in session, whether through remote learning or in a physical classroom.

Thankfully, it’s places like Walmart that are making it super seamless for parents and their kids to get prepared for the school year ahead. We tapped top child psychologists to share advice on how to build your kids up before sending them back out into a changed world, plus all the Walmart products that will help you get there.

young girl thinking while reading
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Focus On The Healing Power Of Play

The pandemic is somber, but parents shouldn’t always be. “Play is often a powerful antidote to anxiety,” says renowned child psychologist Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, co-author of The Power of Showing Up. “When we play, it allows us to be more resilient in the midst of difficult emotions. We are able to tolerate challenge and push through it. Get silly...seriously. Create a song about how the teachers are glad to wear masks so they don’t have to brush their teeth and maybe their teeth are green!” Bryson also suggests planning a super fun activity your kids will get to do when they come home or a favorite game to play on the drive to school. “If parents create anticipation for something fun, that positivity can get associated with school.”

girl scrolling on laptop

Emphasize Small Things

Positive psychology suggests we can improve our mood by focusing on the small things that bring us happiness and a sense of accomplishment. “You can still do many of the same things your family normally did, like shopping for new school clothes, picking out a new pencil box case, but adapt to our COVID-19 reality,” says Dr. Nguyen-Williams. “For instance, you can make a big production of sitting down together to scroll through websites and they can help pick out their new school clothes. You can reframe this pandemic reality for them into something special.”

Parents can make this experience happen even more seamlessly using the newly updated Walmart app. Not only can you shop from anywhere, but you can also opt for delivery or curbside pickup*—no need to set foot in a store. And after you’re done browsing the “fun” stuff with your kids, you can access local teacher’s supply lists directly from the Walmart website to stock up on anything else you might be missing.

*$35 Minimum. Restrictions apply.

father and son sharing breakfast
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Remember, Routines Are Your Friends

“Uncertainty is really stressful for us all—parents and kids,” says Abigail Gewirtz, PhD, author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids. “Kids in particular, because they have so little control over their lives, really feel much more secure when they know what is happening. That’s why it’s so important in the wake of the pandemic to make sure kids do have some sort of routine, and, where possible, know what’s going on.” In the days leading up to school, dry runs can soothe frayed nerves. Wake up and eat breakfast as you would on a normal school day. Grab their new backpack and drive or walk to school at whatever time your kids will actually be going. Get your kids familiar with new safety procedures at home so they become second-nature well before Labor Day. Dr. Elanna Yalow, the Chief Academic Officer at KinderCare learning centers advises: “Practice things like temperature checks, wearing and seeing people in masks, social distancing and hand-washing.”

young girl looking at tablet
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Look For The Positives

Kids may not be permitted to high-five their friends, blow off steam on playground equipment or find creative outlets through musicals. But school still has value. “Remind your student about what school does for them as a person,” says Seth D. Pollak, PhD, professor of Psychology, Pediatrics, Neuroscience and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “How cool is it to be able to read? To become better at using another language? To learn and then be able to use math? To understand more about the history that has led up to the challenges the United States is now facing? To learn what viruses are and maybe become someone who figures out how to save people?” And remember: For some kids, remote learning is a gift. Plenty will thrive with smaller class sizes, the freedom to work independently on remote learning tools and a break from the sensory overload and social anxieties of crowded classrooms. The list of silver linings “is endless and almost anything can allow you to show how you are a ‘glass is half full’ person instead of a ‘glass is half empty person,’” he says.

dad talking to young son
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Validate First, Problem-solve Later

You may have been thrust into the role of homeschool teacher, but save your lectures for a while. “Listen to your student,” says Dr. Pollak. “You really never know what someone else is thinking until they tell you. So ask.” Help your child identify and label their feelings. “That tells them that their emotions are valuable signals, and not to be dismissed or ignored,” says Dr. Gewirtz. She points to research that shows how kids who are routinely given messages like, ‘You don’t need to worry’ or ‘Big boys don’t cry’ learn that emotions are untrustworthy. Kids who are dismissed—or worse, punished—for displaying emotion are at higher risk for anxiety and depression. Once you know what’s wrong, guide your child toward questioning and dismantling their fears. For example, if they say, ‘I can’t learn math if I can’t work directly with my teacher,’ you can talk through what will really happen if they do struggle in that class this year—and what can be done about it. Perhaps you seek out a math tutor or FaceTime a relative for help with fractions or convene a Zoom study group. Every problem has a solution (yes, even ones involving Pi). Reassure your kid you will find it together.

This article reflects prices at publication that may change.