Should My Child Return to School This Fall?
These 5 steps can help you harness anxiety to make a good decision.
Posted Aug 08, 2020
Back-to-school is coming fast and schools are working hard to comply with various guidelines for reopening. Whether you are getting word about what your school system’s plan is, or you are deciding whether to re-enroll your college student, the pressure is mounting to make the right decision. With so many parents asking themselves whether their child should return to school, these last weeks of summer have been a stressful mix of hope, uncertainty, and more anxiety.
To add to the mix, families are making these decisions—while taking into consideration the voices and opinions of parents and children (sometimes adult-aged)—based on mixed messages from an array of experts. It isn't easy to know what to do when it comes to making these complicated decisions, and anxiety will be a constant partner in these complicated scenarios.
Knowing how to make the right decision for you and your family can be tough until you start thinking about what really matters. Rather than making choices from a standpoint of moment-to-moment reactivity, anxiety can actually help you home in on what is most important to you so you arrive at decisions you can live with.
If you can think of anxiety (or lack thereof) as a measuring device for the effectiveness of various options, you will be well on your way to using it as a tool to help decide whether your child should return to school.
Here are five steps for making your anxiety work for you so decision-making is easier and more aligned with your values.
STEP 1: Learn what school options are available to you. Then, ask yourself how much anxiety it does or doesn’t bring up for you?
While the backdrop of uncertainty makes everything more complicated, getting clear on what your options are isn’t a small thing…
Find out what arrangements your school is making to educate kids. What safety precautions are being planned? What protocols are in place if/when kids contract the virus? What is being asked of you to manage your kid’s learning experience? Does that align with how your kid(s) learn and will it help them to succeed?
Ask yourself, how much do you trust your school officials to pull off the plan? Are there elements of the plan that concern you? What are they? What worries you about their ability to pull their best-intentioned plan off? Does it escalate your anxiety or calm you? Does it encourage you or cause you to start thinking about alternatives?
The CDC's online decision-making checklist can be helpful in pointing you to the variables that matter most and measuring your comfort level (a.k.a. lack of anxiety). This can help you highlight places where anxiety still lurks.
If you are still feeling unclear where your key concerns lie, consider listing all your worries about the various options available to you. Be as detailed as you can to give you the information you need to start to think about the greater implications and possibilities. Remember that your anxiety is a warning signal, not a fact. Its purpose is to help you gain clarity so you can make informed decisions.
STEP 2: Sort through your anxious feelings by getting a good handle on what is fact vs. what is feeling.
To make the best, informed decisions, it’s wise to think about the factual basis of your feelings. Sometimes big feelings are helpful in noting something you need to pay attention to. Other times, the feelings are simply fears that need facts shined on them to soothe your mind so making a good decision is possible.
To begin, weed out the irrational fears from the rational ones. For example, how rational should your fear of the virus be? Not sure, check with outside reputable sources – your doctor, scientific guidelines, etc. Aim to answer what is reasonable to worry about when you think of your child returning to school. With data in hand, you can then answer questions like: How likely is a kid to contract the coronavirus at school? Do you have health conditions that would put you at higher risk? Has your doctor recommended extended quarantine?
Sort probabilities from possibilities as much as possible. For example, it may be possible to be exposed to the virus, but with social distancing, mask-wearing, and hygiene practices, is it probable?
Stay focused on what you can control (engaging with school) rather than the things you can’t (like wishing for a vaccine, or that the virus didn’t exist).
STEP 3: Identify what you and your family care about most—a.k.a. your family values—and use your anxiety to highlight the values that matter most.
Decision-making also is dependent on what you care about as a family. It’s different for everyone and yet, it’s a benchmark to put your thoughts against so your choices align as closely as possible with what you need to feel safe.
Sort your priorities into a list and discuss them with your family as it makes sense for your family. Here are some priorities to consider: finances, time and time requirements, acceptable level of stress on you/the kids, time commitments and available time to allot to different activities, health risks and pre-existing conditions of concern, your child's learning needs, your child's social needs, maintaining a healthy, balanced family life, work-life-school balance, and more.
Use your anxiety or anxious feelings as a barometer to help you through this sorting process. Ask yourself with each item on your list how you would feel if harm came to any of the values you listed? Then, resort based on this added information. Make sure to focus as much as possible on scenarios that are probable and even likely, rather than only the worst-case scenarios.
STEP 4: Weigh your options (in-school learning, homeschooling, etc.) against your family values to balance which ones are the most important.
Simplify and distill key priority choices and discuss them with your family openly. This will help you process the anxiety you’re feeling into solutions that can work.
Get creative in forging compromises that could work – and protect as many values as possible. This is hard enough individually, and it can get even harder when as a family you arrive at different priorities. Before you work toward compromise, take time to clarify where your disagreements are.
Aim for good enough—not perfect—with permission to reconsider your decision as information changes (as it likely will).
STEP 5: Give yourself time to “sit with” any decision you are strongly considering.
If you get the decision right “enough” you should experience a quieting of your anxiety. The feelings behind it will stop “yelling” at you as you solve the conflict behind it. The “best” decisions will lead you to a sense of calm as much as is possible in this very uncertain time ahead. In asking yourself "should my child return to school," the answer should reveal itself more clearly.
If you notice your discomfort with a potential solution starts to emerge, pay attention and see where the anxiety is signaling an issue. For example, if you struggle with saying “yes” too easily, you might find it takes you time and/or quiet reflection to notice your feelings.
The take-away for this and any other major decision is that anxiety is truly a tool that can help you. When you are clear about your values, anxiety will remind you if you are hitting the right balance between options and values.
Once decisions are made, remember to trust yourself. Even if some anxiety lingers, know you are doing all you can do within your control. You’ve weighed your priorities and arrived at the best compromise you can for the time being. This is how you’ve harnessed your anxiety for decision-making and ultimately eased it.
This post was originally published on Dr. Clark's blog.