Navigating the transition to in person school settings with our adolescent clients and their support networks is complex and more important than ever. Let’s talk about how we can support those struggling with big fears about returning to school and all the experiences that come along with it.
Hold Space for Their Valid Fears
As much as we want to steer away from future tripping or anticipatory anxiety, validate your clients present fears of returning to peers and school after some time away. This is a great time to assist clients in identifying how their anxiety presents both inwardly and externally, as
everyone experiences anxiety and holds it differently in their body. Next, spend some time with each client in finding or reviewing what individualized self-soothing and regulating practices assist every client with calming their bodies and minds as they navigate this transition.
Returning to School May be Code for Fears Around:
- How they look as they may anticipate others will comment on their appearance
- New pronouns or presenting gender identities
- Setting boundaries and navigating seeing peers they may not have seen in some time
- Fear of bullying
- Peer pressure
- Difficult academic load
- Time management
- New routine/new school/new environment
- Making authentic connections
Weekly Check In
Encourage a weekly council meeting, a specific time held weekly for supports and client to come together to chat about the week. The agenda for their meeting could include: what items they may need for school, activities planned for the week, items they want for snacks or grocery planning, school projects they may need assistance with, a time to check in with one another regarding how they are feeling.
We all get lost in our busy schedules, so taking time to touch base and check in with one another can be helpful.
Include their school counselor if clients and supports are comfortable signing ROIs to assist with transition plans. School counselors can be amazing and helpful resources if you include them in the transition conversation. Ensure that clients have their therapist and mental health
care professional sessions set up, blocked off into their schedule already to assist with continuation of care.
Practice practice practice!
Interactive role play is a fun way to “act out” and practice how clients can navigate nuanced situations they may be frazzled about. Introducing themselves by their preferred pronouns, setting boundaries, or just practicing communication skills as many clients are just nervous they are “out of practice” with their socializing are wonderful ways to assist clients in preparing for back to school and LIFE.
Create realistic structure
Slowly build into the routine that they may need to integrate to function best at school. Jumping straight into their school sleep schedule may shock their system and create issues with sleep and lethargy. Assist clients with setting their circadian rhythms back slowly around a 1-2 weeks prior to their schedule actually beginning to ease them back into waking up earlier.
I don’t know is a doorway for exploration. The questions, “How can I support you,” is usually met with the answer “I honestly don’t know.” Exploring what support is helpful and not helpful to clients is a unique opportunity to find that they feel comfortable with from others in terms of support. Therapy may be their first introduction to learning and identifying what support can look like. Simple encouraging texts from loved ones, distraction when feeling anxious, reminders to take a deep breath, and hugs with consent are all forms of support that many clients aren’t even aware of prior to therapy.
Asking for help is cool
Assist clients with increasing their problem solving skills, opening up their minds to different options in navigating the factors contributing to their anxiety. For example, when I started my master’s program, I had an enormous amount of anxiety regarding finding my classes and their locations. Suggesting clients request a tour of their school prior to their first day to map out the geographical location of their classes, practice their locker combos, or just walk the layout of the school may be beneficial in calming their normal nerves.
Recognize that they will try to do it ALL themselves. Thus, normalize and practice asking for help with small requests to increase their comfortability in reaching out to maybe one or two peers or adults when they feel stuck. Often, we can be fearful of judgement or being a burden to someone by asking for their help. We are not islands and our adolescents and students deserve to be reminded of that when anxiety and depression may could the way!