With the 2016 school year upon us, approximately 50 million American students are gearing up to enroll in elementary through high schools, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. That means, many children and teens are starting to become anxious about going back to school with questions such as, “Will I like my teachers? Will I have friends? Will my classes be too hard? Will I fit in? Will I get lost?”
This sense of uncertainty and uneasiness may be particularly difficult for students who have just moved, or are first-timers to elementary, middle or high school. A sense of nervousness is pretty common, and a case of jitters is normal and to be expected, but what can you do when your child is experiencing a noticeably intense amount of anxiety leading up to the start of school? Here are some general strategies to help your child overcome his school-related fears.
Take care of the basic needs.
Anxious children can often forget to eat, don’t feel hungry, and don’t get enough sleep. Make sure to provide nutritious snacks for your child often, and start to establish consistent routines during this time, so that life is more predictable for your child. These types of routines can consist of morning and bedtime habits, as well as eating schedules.
Encourage discussion around fears and worries.
Ask your child about what is making him worried. You can also ask questions such as, “What have you heard about elementary school?” “What do you think it’s going to be like?” Tell your child that it is normal to have concerns, and begin to address them one-by-one. Some kids feel most comfortable talking about concerns when they have your undivided attention, and some kids, most likely teens, feel most at ease to talk when they have some sort of distraction to lessen the intensity of their worries, such as driving in the car, or taking a walk.
Problem solve instead of giving reassurance.
Children with anxiety often seek reassurance for things that cause them stress in order to reduce their worry around engaging in those activities. Avoid reassuring them with statements like “Everything will be fine!” Instead, support your child to develop his own ways to solve his problem. For example, “If this happens (the worst-case scenario of the fear or worry), what could you do? Lets think of some ways you could handle it.” Along these lines, you can use this time to address real versus imagined scary situations. If need be, role-play with your child, to help him make a plan to feel more confident that he will be able to handle the situation in question.
Model confidence for your child.
Parents can also feel stress about their kids starting school. When children notice their parents are feeling nervous, they may become anxious, too, because they take cues from their parents. The more confidence you can model for them, the more your child will recognize there is no reason to be afraid. Don’t let your child avoid school with an explosive tantrum. Be supportive and positive, yet firm. Help your child communicate his fears and discuss how he can deal with them with a little problem-solving and planning.
Plan a timeline leading up to the first day of school.
At least one week before the start of school, start your child on a school-day routine, which includes waking up, eating, and going to bed at regular times. It may be helpful to get everyone in the family involved in this routine so that the child doesn’t feel singled-out by the changes. Start brainstorming with your child to help him plan his lunches for the first week. Create a list of school supplies together and go shopping. Talk about some coping skills he can use when he’s feeling nervous, including breathing exercises.
A couple days before school, you can practice the school day’s entire routine, maybe even multiple times so that everything becomes as familiar as possible. This includes walking, driving or waiting at the bus stop. For children who take the school bus, describe and draw out the bus route, including how long it takes to get to school. Discuss bus safety with your child and his expectations for riding the bus. For students who are first-timers to their school, take a tour with them. Show your child the classrooms, the cafeteria and the bathrooms. If possible, try to meet your child’s teacher with your child there. Help your child pack his backpack the night before. Reach out to your child’s teacher to tell him or her that your child is experiencing some anxiety. Praise your child for his brave behavior!
If your child doesn’t settle into a daily school routine a month or two into the school year, and the anxiety has become so intense and prolonged that it’s affecting his daily functioning, it may be time for some professional help. Talk to your child’s teacher and the school counselor to get their thoughts and to get their support if outside counseling is needed. Anxiety is the body’s way of alerting us to respond to dangerous or stressful events, but if your child is continually struggling with anxiety, you may need to seek out a trained counselor or psychologist. Once your child is able to tell the difference between a real danger and a “false alarm” danger, he can begin to implement various strategies and tools to handle those in a better, and less stressful way.
“Helping Your Child Cope with Back-to-School Anxiety.” Anxiety BC. Retrieved on July 15, 2015 from www.anxietybc.com
Lohmann, R. (2014). “Back to School Anxiety: Tips to help your teen overcome back to school fears and anxiety.” Psychology Today. Retrieved on July 15, 2015 from www.psychologytoday.com
Peach, Sara. (2011). “Coping with back-to-school anxiety.” UNC Health Care. Retrieved on July 15, 2015 from www.news.unchealthcare.org