Excited and Nervous: How to Help Children Navigate Mixed Feelings About Returning to School

By Lory Britain, Ph.D., author of I’m Happy-Sad Today: Making Sense of Mixed-Together Feelings

Excited and Nervous: How to Help Children Navigate Mixed Feelings About Returning to SchoolYour child laughs excitedly as she packs pencils and pens in her backpack for the first day of in-person school. You watch with both relief and trepidation as your family prepares to enter this new era of school in the fall . . .

For over a year, we have been extra attentive to children’s feelings, including their fears and anxieties surrounding the pandemic and its challenges. The importance of helping children express all their feelings has been recently highlighted in articles, newscasts, blog posts, children’s books, professional discourse, and more.

Many children are returning to school in-person for the first time in a long while. Children, parents, and teachers are experiencing new combinations of feelings, individually and collectively. A child might be feeling both happy and nervous. In other words, the child has mixed-together feelings. Likewise, each family and each classroom also have mixed-together feelings. In writing this post, I wondered: Would looking at the collective feelings of families and classrooms help us understand and support children’s individual feelings? And would helping children understand that we all have different feelings and perspectives help them express their own?

Zooming In, Zooming Out

Consider the metaphor of a camera lens to understand children and their experiences. As Harry F. Wolcott wrote, “One’s focus moves constantly between figure and ground—like a zoom lens on a camera—to catch the final detail of what individuals are doing and to keep a perspective on the context of that behavior.”i Although behavior is referenced in this metaphor, I find it useful for understanding children’s individual feelings and our collective feelings and perspectives.

The ecological model of contextualizing children’s developmentii validates what we intuitively know as parents and teachers. Whether within the family, the classroom, or children’s social circles, individuals are affected by each other. For example:

Jason nervously walks into his classroom and notices a group of children greeting each other happily. Seeing the contrast between his feelings and the other children’s glee makes Jason feel more isolated and nervous. The teacher looks at all the children and notices Jason’s increasingly distraught demeaner. She decides to initiate a group discussion about children’s different feelings and how they might support each other.

Let’s take a look at how a collective-feelings framework can guide decisions around supporting children.

Supporting Collective Mixed Feelings

Here are some steps to go through before talking to a child or children about collective feelings.

First, consider the feelings of individuals and what the collective “mixed-together” feelings are or might be. For example, in one family, a four-year old child is excited about going to preschool for the first time, the seven-year-old sibling is both excited and worried, one parent feels relieved, and the other parent is tentative about these changes.

Next, consider how each person’s feelings might influence others in the family or classroom. In this same family, the older child might warn the younger one about being “really careful,” and the parents might share their feelings privately and help each other feel accepting of the changes.

Then think about how much you would like to share about adult feelings when talking to children about family or classroom feelings. Would sharing adult feelings needlessly overwhelm or frighten children? Would sharing your feelings invalidate or validate how children are feeling? In the family, the parents don’t want the seven-year-old to scare the four-year-old about starting school. They want to make the discussion positive. They wonder if the children’s classmates might say something to increase worries. Additionally, despite the necessity of emphasizing health precautions, the parents never mention that people can die of COVID-19. Instead, they choose to tell their children, “People could get real sick from COVID.” They wonder if they should add, “and may need to go to the hospital.”

Finally, decide what you will say to children. After talking privately, the parents decide to talk to the children about mixed-together family feelings. They want to validate both children’s feelings, yet focus on certain healthy practices, such as handwashing, not putting the ends of pencils in mouths, not rubbing eyes, and so on. The parents decide to ask their children’s teachers to keep them informed about classroom discussions around children’s feelings and to share ideas during this transition. They know that other children bring different ideas and feelings into the mix.

Looking at “What If”

How might talking about mixed-together family or classroom feelings begin in these scenarios?

A seven-year-old gleefully shouts out, “Hurrah, now everything can be exactly like it used to be!”

You might say, “I am so happy you are excited about school starting. Let’s sit down together after lunch and talk about all our feelings about what school will be like next week.”

A five-year-old says, “I don’t want to go back to school. I never want to be around lots of people.”

You might say, “We all have lots of different feelings with school starting. Let’s have a family talk and share how each of us feels.”

A six-year-old runs to her teacher on the first day and says, “Jamal sneezed around me. Am I going to get real sick? He said that it is okay to play close together and to have fun and not worry.”

The teacher might validate this child’s concerns and discuss healthy practices with the entire class. The teacher might also send a letter to parents to describe the classroom safety practices.

Feelings Activities for the Family or Classroom

Here are a few activities to try with the children in your care:

  • Share feelings about a situation that is not frightening to introduce the idea of mixed-together family or classroom feelings. An example might be about children liking different colors.
  • Make up family or classroom mixed-together feeling words, such as “Ner-cited” (nervous and excited).
  • Have everyone in the family or classroom write all their different feelings on big piece of paper. Children can draw faces or scenes by each feelings word.
  • Ask children to each draw one feeling on a plate mask and hold it over their face. Then have them remove the mask and show a different emotion using their face.
  • Make up a collective, progressive story with children that shows changing feelings. For example: “Once there was a girl who felt _______ and her mother felt _____ and then they decided to go to the ____, and then the mother felt _____ and the girl felt _____ and . . . ”
  • Ask each child (or family member) to act out or show different feelings on their faces and share in succession.
  • Dance as a group, with each person showing a feeling in their dance moves. Discuss, and then trade off feelings and dance again.
  • Have children or family members face each other and make different feelings faces. Do this activity in pairs, in a circle, or in lines facing each other.

Changing Our Responses

We can adjust our focus to first look closely at children’s feelings and then at a broader context. And as time passes, we adapt, children mature, and new issues emerge and change. How we help children adjust to school will look different in a month, in several months, and next year.

Prepare for the beginning of the school year and beyond by focusing on individual and collective feelings. And who knows? A child might tell you, “WE are excited and nervous together.”

i. Wolcott, H. “Ethnographic Research in Education.” In R. Jaeger (Ed.) Complementary Methods for Research in Education. Washington, D.C.: American Education Research Association, 1988: 185–186.

ii. Bronfenbrenner, U. The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Lory Britain, Ph.D., has more than forty years of experience working with children, teachers, and families. Her background includes time in the classroom as a preschool teacher, helping found therapeutic child and family programs, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in early childhood education, and presenting at state, national, and international conferences for professionals who work with young children. In addition to this work, Dr. Britain has written many children’s books that help kids stay safe and express their feelings and ideas. She also takes her therapy dog Puppet to visit children in hospitals and schools. Lory lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Im Happy Sad TodayLory is the author of I’m Happy-Sad Today

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