Going back to school, or starting school for the first time, is a huge change in a child’s life and it could make them so worried they feel like they never want to go back.
And this year—of course—brings with it some additional challenges.
A little bit of stress is a typical part of life, but for kids who don’t really know what anxiety is, it can be scary as they don’t fully understand the feelings they’re having.
It is important to know and explain to them that what they are feeling is normal.
What are the symptoms of anxiety in children?
The symptoms of anxiety about school can be broad and many, so it is important to take notice of any change in your child’s normal behaviour or temperament.
Symptoms can include:
- Avoiding talking about school or anything school-related
- Being unusually shy or withdrawn
- Throwing tantrums or crying without obvious cause
- Tiredness and trouble sleeping
- Increased fear—of something specific or just in general
- Trouble focusing and concentrating
- Complaints of stomach aches, headaches, or a general feeling of sickness with no other cause
- Development of a nervous habit such as nail-biting
- Regression in development, such as bedwetting or thumb-sucking
How to help a child with back-to-school anxiety
One of the most common causes of back-to-school anxiety is a fear of the unknown, where the child is afraid and anxious because they don’t know exactly how their first day is going to go. Combating this fear can be easy—tell them about everything and remove the unknown aspects.
If they are worried about…
Visit the school. The administration team and teachers are usually at school in the week before students start back and sometimes parents and students are invited in to drop off their book and stationery. Use this opportunity to walk around and take note of where their classroom is, where the bathrooms are, where the office is, and anywhere else they are worried about finding.
If you’re not given an explicit invitation to visit the school to do that you can still always call or drop into the office.
Their new teacher
Meet them. See if it’s possible to meet the teacher on your tour of the school so they know who to look for on their first day. Talking to the teacher will help calm the child’s nerves about what their teacher will be like.
The route to school
Practice it. However they will be getting to school, walk it or drive it a few times so they know exactly where they’ll be going and how long it takes. This will also get them used to the pick-up and drop-off areas.
Reassure them of how likeable they are. Try to set up play dates with the other children in that class (if you already know) or help them practice some ice-breaker topics for the first day, such as “I like your bag, where’d you get it?” or “Did you do anything really fun on the holidays?”
Leaving you in the morning
Invent a secret hand shake or wave that is only for school drop-offs so they can look forward to doing your secret thing each day. Remember to keep the goodbye short, so they don’t have a chance to start feeling bad before you leave.
Missing you during the day
Pack a note in their lunch. Write a little, reassuring note and put it in their lunchbox, so when lunch time rolls around they get a little confidence boost and can feel good the rest of the day.
Set up a routine. Do this before school starts and make sure they know when to do it, where to do it, and how long homework will take. Explain to them that they will learn how to do it in class, and you will be there to help if they need it later.
Role play with them. Ask them what hypothetical situation is stressing them, and act it out with a few different scenarios so they can get a picture of what would happen. Reversing the roles so you play the child can help them see how to act calmly and in a stress-free manner.
Other ways to lessen their stress
Be organised and predictable
Organise your home, including where they will study or do homework and how you will plan meals for school days.
Make sure they have enough sleep
Make sure they are getting a good amount of sleep, as the stress might be causing tiredness or they might be having nightmares that could limit the quality of the sleep they get. Sticking to a good sleep routine will help this, and get them ready for school sleep patterns once they start.
Take them seriously
Acknowledge that they are feeling bad or worried or scared, say it back to them, and try to get them to elaborate on their feelings: “I see that you’re a bit scared of starting school, do you want to talk about it?” Also explain that everyone feels this way at some point, and it is nothing to be ashamed of because it is normal and lots of other school kids will be feeling the same way when they go back.
Try to avoid saying things like “you’ll be fine” or “there’s nothing to worry about” as it can give them the idea that you don’t think their worries are legitimate or cause for concern. Even if it is trivial in your mind, the fear and anxiety is real for them.
Teach them how to calm down
Teach them how to do deep breathing exercises. Show them how to do them when they’re calm, and then help them do them when they are feeling scared or anxious. The physical action of taking deep breaths sends a message to the brain to calm down, and the brain sends a message back to the rest of the body to calm down too, so symptoms of stress and anxiety will subside.
Get them to take a deep breath that fills their diaphragm (stomach) and lungs, hold it for five seconds, then slowly breathe it all out. Do this for a few minutes at a time in practice so it starts to work quickly when they really need it to. Yoga can also calm the brain and body if you have a chance to try it.
Remind them of all the good things about school, like seeing old friends, learning new things, or anything they enjoy about being there. Focus on all the positive things, like the fact that they got through it last year (if returning to school), or that their siblings/cousins/parents got through it even though they were feeling just the same way at the start.
Eat well and stay active
Making sure a child eats a healthy diet can help with anxiety, and increasing exercise is known to relieve stress.
Remember avoidance won’t help
If your child is frequently anxious about going to school, avoidance can actually make their anxiety worse. Letting them stay home reinforces the idea that there is something to be afraid of.
Of course, use your best judgement, sometimes one day off for mental health can be as important as days off for physical health. But if you’re concerned that your child has an anxiety disorder (ie. it is ongoing and the stress is unrelated to a particular situation), then it is important to find support and advice on how to best deal with that anxiety.
Remember that some school anxiety and stress is normal and manageable, but if anxiety starts to stand in the way of functioning normally on a day-to-day basis, it is time to see a doctor as there may be a larger problem. So talk to your child, find out what’s up, and most importantly: breathe!