By: Gretchen Hunter, PHD
(Adapted from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine)
Whether a child is just starting out in kindergarten or heading off to college, the excitement surrounding the beginning of a new school year is felt by many students. Others however, may experience stress and anxiety about returning to school. As a parent, understanding the difference between the expected “first day jitters” and something more concerning, isn’t always easy. Knowing what to look for and how to support kids that may be feeling anxious about this transition can make all the difference.
Some nervous behaviors are typical and diminish over the first few weeks of school. There are several easy ways to tell when a child’s anxiety is cause for concern. Red flags that indicate a child’s anxiety is causing a great deal of distress include:
- Tantrums when separating from parents or caregivers to attend school
- Difficulty getting along with family members or friends
- Avoidance of normal activities in and outside of school
- Symptoms such as stomachaches, fatigue, difficulty sleeping alone
There are many things parents and caregivers can do to ease a child’s back to school anxiety.
- A week or two before school, start preparing children for the upcoming transition by resuming school-year routines, such as setting a realistic bedtime and selecting tomorrow’s clothes.
- Arrange play dates with one or more familiar peers before school starts. Research shows that the presence of a familiar peer during school transitions can improve children’s academic and emotional adjustment.
- Visit the school before the school year begins, rehearse the drop-off and spend time on the playground or inside the classroom if the building is open. Have your child practice walking into class while you wait outside or down the hall.
- Come up with a prize or a rewarding activity that the child could earn for separating from mom or dad to attend school.
- Validate the child’s worry by acknowledging that, like any new activity, starting school can be hard but soon becomes easy and fun.
- Consider carpooling with a familiar peer to ease fears when entering the school building. Having another parent handle drop off in the morning may also be beneficial as separation anxiety may be heightened when parent is present.
- Reach out to teacher or guidance counselor for support during morning transitions. A preferred activity could be offered first thing upon arrival to help with transition. Children may enjoy a special “helping” activity to be able to be near their teacher.
Some families may need to consider consulting with a professional to support their efforts in easing back to school anxiety.
- If after the first month or so, your child continues to show distress around school that is not improving or if the child’s symptoms are worsening, it may be time to seek an evaluation from a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist.
- Consulting a mental health professional can help children and parents understand the child’s symptoms and work together on resolving them.
- There are several ways to address anxiety, such as with a particular type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT teaches the child and parent skills to address and confront anxiety.
- Your child’s practitioner may also recommend medication to address anxiety. Medication, alone or in combination with therapy, is another option that can help to improve symptoms of anxiety and get kids back to their regular activities.