As the summer season winds down, stores begin to fill with back-to-school sales. The days ahead will be coupled with excited children ready to pick out their attire and supplies for the coming school year.
Many children will also wrestle with feelings of anxiety regarding what the school year may bring and the pressures of fitting in with their peers. Even children who often enjoy school can experience back to school anxieties that center on friendships, classwork and living up to their family and school expectations.
Signs of anxiety in children
- Stomach aches
- Crying spells before school
- Refusing to go to school
- Meltdowns before school
- Refusal to get dressed in the morning
- Completing rituals (i.e. extreme hand washing, touching door knobs) before leaving the home
Parents can use several approaches in helping alleviate their child’s anxiety.
Check your emotional temperature!
Children listen and pick up on the emotional temperature of how their parents speak of their abilities to succeed in school. It is important to identify how positive your thoughts are on the approaching school year and to challenge your negative thoughts that may influence your child’s beliefs.
Parents can use encouraging language to help their child feel prepared.
Use encouraging statements such as:
(Child’s name), I know you’ll do great this year in ____ (waking up on time, getting school clothes ready the day before, completing assignments on time).
I know we worked really hard this summer on improving your (math, reading, emotion control, asking for help, reducing impulsive behavior) skills, and I think you’ll do great in class.
Listen and Validate
Children want to be heard, and they want their concerns to be treated as important. A transitional year like starting middle school, arriving at a new school and/or having a sibling/friend leave a school can be difficult for children to navigate. Listen empathetically to your child’s concerns and try to find solutions, if possible.
Use validating statements such as:
I know it will be different since you’ll be starting school without (name of friend, brother, sibling, cousin), but I think you will be able to make new friends. Do you need suggestions on how to make a new friend?
It is hard to be the new student in class. I understand how that could make you feel (nervous and uncomfortable). What can I do to make your first day at school less (emotion used in previous sentence)?
Last year you struggled with (waking up on time, having a enough time to do assignments, struggling to make friends). Is it okay if we bring this to your teacher’s attention?
Practice makes perfect
If keeping up with routines is an issue, it can be beneficial to have your child practice normal morning school day rituals. Once a week have your child prepare for an upcoming school day by completing age appropriate routines. Whatever feels right for your family’s needs should be practiced.
- An elementary school child may need more support with being woken up, help getting dressed, making breakfast and being accountable for having their backpack with their homework in it.
- Expectations for a middle school and/or high school student may use less parental involvement depending on developmental level.
- An adult within the home can offer to record the child as if filming a YouTube “get ready with me” video. The adult and child can review the footage and/or routine to discuss any needed help and/or changes to make for a smoother morning.
Getting acquainted with the new environment
If your child worries in new surroundings, it could be helpful to help get your child acquainted with the new school environment, whether it’s just a new classroom or a new school.
- Familiarize your child with the ride to school by driving to school together.
- Ask for a tour of the school and/or new classroom. It will help your child feel more at ease in the new environment. Schools are also usually open for short summer hours and welcome parents who stop by.
- If your child has increased social, emotional and or physical needs, getting familiar with the support staff, school social workers and psychologist will also serve as a benefit as the year progresses.
When the anxiety doesn’t alleviate
There are times when a child’s anxiety may persist despite efforts from the child and/or parent or guardian. Increased clingy behaviors, irritability, OCD symptoms and blatant refusal to attend school would benefit from professional help.
Many child behavioral health providers can help parents navigate create a treatment plan for reduction of anxiety and specific behaviors.
Pine Rest offers psychological and IQ testing if underlying concerns need further investigation. Testing allows insight into a through treatment plan that can be shared with the child’s school.
As the school year starts my hope is that each child is able to enjoy the experience of learning and communing with others.
Elizza LeJeune, LMSW, is a fully licensed clinician social worker at the Pine Rest Northwest Clinic. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Central Michigan University and her Master’s in Social Work with a Certificate in Disaster Mental Health from Tulane University in New Orleans. Her areas of interest include working with children, adolescents and adults struggling with depression, anxiety and spiritual issues as well as family, child and women’s issues.