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Easing your child’s anxiety about the new school year

August 13, 2014

“Are you excited about going back to school?”

This week alone, my son has been asked this question by well-meaning adults at least ten times. It seems like everywhere we go, the topic comes up. For families, there is no escaping the fact that the first day is quickly approaching. Regardless of whether our kids are excited or not, “Back to School” season is in full swing!

It is normal for there to be a mix of emotions for kids and parents when the first day rolls around. As parents, we may feel stressed, excited, or even sad if our kids are going to school for the first time or starting a new phase of education altogether.

The same goes for kids - they may feel excited, fearful, or worried. “What if I don’t like my teacher?” “What if my teacher hates me?” “What if I have no friends in my class?” “What if I can’t do the work?” “What if I bring the wrong color folders and I get in trouble?”

For most adults, these types of worries are nothing major. We know that our kids will eventually make friends. We know that we will help them with their schoolwork. We know they won’t get in trouble for bringing red folders instead of blue ones. However, our kids don’t always know these things. They don’t know these things because this is all new to them, and every year brings changes. Even if they stay at the same school every year, they have a new schedule, new teachers, and new expectations -and that can be stressful. How would we feel if every year, our job expectations became more difficult, simply because we were a year older? How would we like it if every year, we had a new supervisor, a new schedule, and a brand new set of coworkers to deal with?

So, what can you do if you are the parent of a child who is anxious about going back to school?

There is actually a lot you can do. Since every child is different, there is no predetermined list of steps to take, but there are many different interventions you can try. I suggest basing your choices on the age and developmental stage of your child, their level of anxiety, and their personality.

Show up! Go to “Meet the Teacher” so your kids can get a feel for their school and new classroom. Walk around campus with them and find the areas that they will be going to: the PE area, the pickup area, etc. Most schools allow parents to walk their kids into the classroom on the first day. If your child wants you to, take advantage of this as a way to show extra support and to send the message that “we are in this together.” Be involved with your child’s school. Join the PTA, attend conferences, and show up for evening events, like Skate Nights or pizza parties. This will help your child feel that you are just as involved in this part of their world as they are.

Find ways to make it fun. Take them shopping for supplies and let them pick out a few things on their own. A cool new pencil box or an extra special pack of erasers can do wonders. Stick a note in their backpack or lunch box telling them you are proud and you love them. Burn off that nervous energy by exercising together or do some relaxation techniques together (deep breathing, stretching).

“Everyone has a job.” Any parent of school-age children, even those with kids that love school, have had to deal with the occasional “But I don’t wanna go to school todaaayyy.” We hear this in our house, too. Years ago, we had a talk with our son about how everyone has a job to do. Mom and Dad have jobs to do, and he does, too. We would empathize with him when he didn’t want to go, but would also reiterate that his job was to go to school and work hard, just like Mom and Dad go to their jobs and work hard.

Accentuate the positive. If your child is stressed about school, it might help to highlight the things that you know he or she is going to enjoy. Maybe the school just got new playground equipment. Perhaps your child is going to start a new activity or sport. Bringing up the good stuff won’t necessarily make the nervousness disappear, but it may help your kiddo shift their focus to cool things to get excited about.

Secret Supporter. Does your child already happen to know someone at school? A teacher that also happens to be a neighbor? An older sibling or cousin? Find someone to be your child’s “secret supporter,” someone that you can talk to about keeping an eye on your kiddo. It might give your child a little extra sense of security to know someone is looking out for them!

Hash it out. If the anxiety seems extreme, see if you can get to the bottom of what is going on. Talk with your child. Maybe there is something bigger going on here. Is there a bullying issue? A fear of not being able to meet academic expectations? Is there a worry of not fitting in with the other kids? Support and empathize with your child. Look to school staff to help with the transition and find out if the school has a guidance counselor to talk to. With your child’s permission, share the concerns with their teacher and other administrative staff so that everyone will be on the same page.

Make a plan together. Talk to your son or daughter about what their new school routine will look like. Let them know what time they will be getting up and what the morning expectations are. Do they dress themselves? Do they pack their own lunches? Make sure they know what they need to do. Review your pick up procedures so they know where to go when the school day ends. Kids respond well to structure, especially when things feel uncertain. Give them a game plan, and they are likely to follow it!

Face the facts. The hard truth is that the first day is coming. Some kids would probably rather run away and live in a cave than go to school, but we all know that’s not going to happen. Being gently honest about the fact that your child is expected to go to school is important. Being accepting and respectful of your child’s feelings is equally important. Say something like, “I understand that you are feeling worried, and together, with your new teacher, we will figure this whole school thing out.” This will validate your child’s feelings (helping them understand that you get how they feel), send the message that you, your child, and their teacher are going to work as a team, and lets them know that everyone cares about him or her feeling better. Dismissing their concerns by saying things like, “Just don’t worry about it” or “It will be fine,” usually doesn’t help our little ones feel any better.

Do a reality check. No one is perfect. The perfect backpack may end up being totally uncool. Your child may drop their lunch tray in the cafeteria on the first day. They may end up in a class where they don’t know anyone. Encourage your child to be himself, do his best, and don’t take himself too seriously.

The good news is the first day of school is only one day. The second day of school brings a sense of familiarity and routine. School anxiety for most kids usually dissipates pretty quickly after the first couple of days. If your child continues to have anxiety about school after the routine has become normalized and it is affecting their performance or mood, keep the lines of communication open with them. Reach out to their teacher and other staff for support and guidance. Seek out activities for your child that they can participate in that will give them a confidence boost, and consider meeting with a counselor or your pediatrician for more support and information on childhood anxiety.

Have a great year, everyone!

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