Student Well-Being

4 Ways Schools Can Ease Students’ Separation Anxiety

By Apoorvaa Mandar Bichu — August 26, 2022 4 min read
Tight crop from the back of a mother and daughter holding hands. Daughter is wearing a backpack.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Many children suffer the pangs of separation anxiety as they return to school, but some research suggests long months of pandemic-related quarantines and remote schooling has made the problem worse for some.
As many as 4 percent to 7 percent of children between ages 7 and 11, and 1.6 percent of adolescents suffer from separation anxiety disorder, according to a 2022 estimate from The Recovery Village, a network of rehabilitation centers.

While a few butterflies in the stomach are common on the first day of school, separation anxiety can become a full-blown mental disorder when “a person experiences excessive anxiety, fear, distress when separated from the closest person to whom he or she is attached (most often it concerns parents, grandparents or siblings),” according to research by Malgorzata Dabkowska, a researcher from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland, and Agnieszka Dabkowska-Mika from Innsbruck Medical University in Austria.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, separation anxiety is considered a normal response in toddlers and younger children, but if it continues in older children, or prevents the child’s achievement of milestones such as going to school or playing with friends, the child may have separation anxiety disorder.

The thought of separation can lead to temper tantrums, a refusal to go to school, a fear of being alone, and physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches.

Impact of the pandemic on students with separation anxiety disorder

New research has found that the pandemic lockdown and the return to school after a long quarantine may cause difficulty in students when returning to an in-person setting.

According to Dabkowska and Dabkowska-Mika, the pandemic had a big impact on mental health worldwide, with an increase in “emotional outbursts, especially panic, avoidance, stigmatization and different types of fear,” including social anxiety and fear of death or getting isolated.”

The research found that pandemic-related stress also reduced parents’ ability to support their child emotionally, which further intensified their child’s separation anxiety as they were more likely to feel a lack of security.

“During the pandemic, children with separation anxiety who refuse to attend school may initially feel better [but] when the pandemic is over, avoidance behavior can worsen and prevent return to school after ending social isolation,” the researchers write.

Another study by researchers at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology and School of Medicine in the United Kingdom said that students’ fears of being exposed to the virus in school were often reinforced by parents and what they saw in the media, leading to students feeling increasingly anxious about their return to school.

“Children’s exposure to parental and media discussions about the risks of illness and death, coupled with the need to take precautionary measures, made children more aware of their bodily sensations and more concerned about getting ill and/or dying, perhaps giving rise to panic,” the research found.

Teachers and parents can help ease children’s fears about separating from loved ones to go back to school. Here are some of the coping strategies they suggest:

  1. Create a routine for students

    Inculcate a sense of routine in the school day so that students know what to expect as they adjust to their new environments.

    Some ways experts suggest are using a visual timetable for students to refer to, or establishing a greeting routine with younger students like smiling and shaking their hand as they enter the classroom in the morning and having their parents say goodbye at the door, which can help create a sense of trust with the teacher.

  2. Recognize older students may have different reasons for separation anxiety

    According to an article from Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, a health-care network in the San Francisco Bay area, preteens and teenagers may have social anxieties for different reasons than their younger peers. They might fear their peers won’t accept them, for instance.

    “Students’ oppositional behaviors or complaints that school is ‘boring’ may be driven by underlying anxieties,” Barbara Bentley, a clinical associate professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics with the Stanford Medicine Children’s Health network, said.

    In this case, she suggests the adults in the child’s life have honest conversations with the student, acknowledging their internal emotional experience while communicating confidence in the older student’s ability to handle challenges.

  3. Orientation events can help students get used to the school setting

    For middle schoolers or students in junior high or high school, orientation activities such as campus tours and open houses can help in calming anxieties, managing expectations, and making new friends, according to Stanford Medicine Children’s Heath.

  4. Professional mental health resources can help

    Educators who suspect a student may be suffering from separation anxiety disorder can communicate with their parents or guardians and refer them to seek professional help with a therapist or a school counselor.

    Medical and mental health professionals can guide families on other options for managing separation anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, and school-based mental health interventions.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Transform Teaching and Learning with AI
Increase productivity and support innovative teaching with AI in the classroom.
Content provided by Promethean
Curriculum Webinar Computer Science Education Movement Gathers Momentum. How Should Schools React?
Discover how schools can expand opportunities for students to study computer science education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being School Sports Participation Drops, Raising Concern About 'Physical Learning Loss'
But interest in e-sports and inclusive teams is rising.
5 min read
The Michigan City High School Girls Varsity Basketball team hosted a Future Wolves basketball camp for elementary and middle school girls on Saturday, March 5, 2022 at the high school.
The varsity girls basketball team at Michigan City High School in Michigan City, Ind., hosted a basketball camp for elementary and middle school girls last spring.
Kelley Smith/The News Dispatch via AP
Student Well-Being Biden's National Strategy on Hunger: What It Means for Schools
The administration seeks more access to free school meals and nutritious foods. But a universal free meals bill is stalled in Congress.
4 min read
President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, at the Ronald Reagan Building, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in Washington on Sept. 28.
Evan Vucci/AP
Student Well-Being Opinion Why Students Give In to Peer Pressure. Here’s How to Help Them Resist It
Punishments like suspension don’t solve behavior problems. These tools are more effective.
Geoffrey L. Cohen
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being Explainer The School Year Is Getting Hotter. How Does Heat Affect Student Learning and Well-Being?
Climate change will lead to more hot school days, and experts say schools are not prepared.
10 min read
With only open windows and fans to cool the room down, students enter their non-air-conditioned classroom at Campbell High School in Ewa, Hawaii, on Aug. 3, 2015. Most of Hawaii's public schools don't have air conditioning, and record-high temperatures have left teachers and students saying they can't focus because of the heat. Hawaii lawmakers are saying it's time to cool Hawaii's public schools. A proposal being considered by the House Committee of Finance would fund air conditioning for Hawaii Department of Education schools and expedite the process to get cooling systems installed in classrooms.
Only open windows and fans cooled the room as students arrived at Campbell High School in Ewa, Hawaii, in August, 2015. Most of Hawaii's public schools don't have air conditioning, even as research shows that heat can depress student learning.
Marco Garcia/AP