The start of a new school year is exciting for most families. But also, may instigate a spike in anxiety. Even kids who are usually pretty laid back and easy going may get butterflies. If you have an already anxious child, they may cling to you, cry, have behavior outbursts, complain of headaches or stomach pains, plead or bargain, or become irritable in the days leading up to school. It’s a big shift from summer’s freedom and lack of structure to the rigorous routines of school. The start of a new school year may be especially challenging for kids who are entering a transition year- going into kindergarten, middle school, high school or moving to a new school. For a majority of kids, new school year nerves will settle quickly. Here are 10 tips to help your child successfully transition back to school.
1. Start with the basics. There is a well-established link between our physical and mental health. When your child’s mind and body are nourished, tackling school related anxieties is made easier. Ensure your child is eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water, limiting sugar and caffeine, getting plenty of sleep and staying active.
2. Pay attention to your own behaviors. The start of a new school year can be anxiety educing for parents too. Children take cues from their parents and feed off of their energy. It is important for you to check in with yourself and take steps to manage your own anxieties to ensure you are not passing on your stress to your child. Be intentional about sharing your calm with your child.
3. Listen and validate. When your child expresses worry about a new teacher, homework, making friends or team try outs- take their concerns seriously. Rather than dismissing these fears (“you shouldn’t be scared, you will be fine”), acknowledge their feelings. Let them know that their concerns are valid (“that makes sense that you feel that way”) and normal (“a lot of kids who start at a new school worry about the exact same thing”).
4. Let your child be the expert. Kids often want to talk to you about their fears without expecting you to fix it. Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to solve their own problems and manage their own emotions. Let them generate solutions (“what might make you feel better?” “what could you do if that situation comes up?”). If your child needs help coming up with ideas, ask for permission to offer strategies to handle tough situations or coping skills to manage their anxiety. Boost your child’s self-confidence by reminding them of previous triumphs in similar situations (“remember last year when you felt the same way. You got through it!”).
5. Focus on the positive. Create a positive expectation. Once you have listened to your child, validated their concerns and helped (with permission!) them develop a concrete plan- redirect their attention towards the positives. Ask about things your child is looking forward to. Remind them of past experiences they have enjoyed, such as a field trip or extracurricular activity.
6. Start the routine early. It’s a no brainer that sleep is critical. When we are tired, we have less energy to manage our emotions which can make littles things feel really big. It is important to gradually return your child to their school year sleep and wake routine. It may take several days for your child to re-adjust and become comfortable with the new schedule.
7. Do a test run. New school anxiety is commonly anchored by the unknown. Giving kids a sense of familiarity can greatly reduce their fears. Visit the school several times before the big day. Walk to and from the bus stop. If it is a new school, take a tour or walk the halls and help your child locate their classroom, cafeteria, bathrooms, gym etc. If possible, take your child to meet their teachers.
8. Connect. Anxiety around friends is a common experience, especially among older youth. Who’s going to be in my class? Who can I sit with on the bus? Will I have to sit alone during lunch? It may be helpful for your child to make social connections before they start school. Arrange for them to walk to school with a sibling or compare schedules with some friends. If it is a new school, take steps to connect with other parents and coordinate a play date or meet up.
9. Arrange for a hand off. If you think your child will be resistant to separate, it is helpful to reach out to the school and arrange for someone to meet you on the first day. Having a teacher, a school counselor, an aide or a nurse primed and ready to engage your child from the moment they arrive can help take their mind off of their anxiety. It is important for parents to make the hand off quick and positive. Inform your child that you are leaving, and you will see them after school (do not sneak away!). Give them a hug and a quick “I love you” then walk away. Leaving a crying child at school is tough for any parent but dragging it out will only make it worse. Most kids recover very quickly after mom or dad leaves.
10. Signs that it’s not normal. Back to school jitters usually will subside naturally after the first week or two- once routine and familiarity sets in. However, for some kids, the stress and fear they experience can exceed beyond what is considered normal. Seek professional help if you notice any of the following signs;
· Your child’s anxiety is significantly more frequent and intense than usual
· Your child’s anxiety gets worse or does not appear to be getting better
· Preoccupation with fear/worries
· Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
· Protest and resistance to attend school (that does not improve after the first few days)
· Changes in behavior
· Refusing to engage in activities they previously enjoyed
· Isolating or withdrawing from family/friends