Back to School Anxieties
How to help your child to start a new school year?
Although they might complain about the end of summer and the start of homework, for most children, the beginning of the school year is an exciting time, full of possibilities. Each new school year brings new teachers, new classmates, new experiences...but all this newness also brings uncertainty, which means that almost every child will feel at least a tickle of back-to-school anxiety.
Mild symptoms of back-to-school anxiety might include "butterflies in the stomach," spending a lot of time picking just the right things for the first day of school, being full of questions, or staying more quiet than usual. More uncomfortable symptoms might include having trouble sleeping, decreased appetite, restlessness or irritability. Severe symptoms might involve tears, tantrums, or even refusing to go to school.
What children worry about varies with age. Preschoolers, kindergarteners, and first graders might have a hard time with separation, especially if they have limited experience being away from a parent. Young children tend to worry about getting hurt and about practical logistics, such as "What if I can't find the bathroom?", "What if I get on the wrong bus?" or "What if I come out of school and my mom/dad/sitter isn't there?"
Older children might have practical worries similar to younger kids, such as "What if I can't find my classroom?" However, they're more likely to have social concerns, such as "Will my teacher be nice?", "What if I don't have any friends in my class?", and "Who will I sit with at lunch?" Older children are also more likely to worry about school performance and the increased work demands in a higher grade.
Adolescents tend to worry about how others, especially peers, will evaluate them. They are also worried about bullying. Children who are in the youngest grade at a school sometimes fear being picked on or pushed around by the big kids. If your child seems anxious, it's worth asking, "What are you concerned about?"
Children sometimes hear incorrect or exaggerated information from other kids that frightens them unnecessarily (e.g., "All the fifth-grade teachers are really mean!", or "Everyone in middle school gets bullied!"). You may be able to offer reassurance or correct misunderstandings to put some fears to rest. You may also want to try to have more time together, if possible. Our simple presence is comforting and soothing to our children and gives them the opportunity to talk if they want to do so.
Here are some more ideas about how to help your child cope with back-to-school worries:
Acknowledge your child's feelings
Dismissing your child's fears by saying, "Don't worry. It'll be fine" will just prompt your child to argue more that things won't be fine. It's kinder and more effective to acknowledge that your child feels scared. You could say something like, "You're nervous about starting at the upper school," or "You're worried because your friends from last year are mostly in a different class." Just hearing that you understand can often ease the burden of worries for children.
This could mean visiting the school before opening day, finding a photo of your child's new teacher on the school website. It could mean starting up a regular bedtime routine a few days before school begins, laying out uniform the night before, or helping your child organize school supplies such as color-coded folders for each class.
It could mean arranging for your child to walk to school with a friend or encouraging your child to plan an after-school get-together with some friends. There can be different creative ways each parent can come up with.
Make plans for handling possible rough spots
If your child is worried about a particular situation, help your child figure out a plan for handling it. For instance, if your child says, "What if I have no one to play with at recess?" ask, "What could you do in that situation?" and then brainstorm solutions or offer suggestions, if necessary.
Be specific. For example, on the playground, your child could stand in line to use the slides or swings, join a game of basketball, tag, or four-square, or scan the playground for another child who seems to be looking for a playmate.
With young children, it may help to point out that teachers, aides, and even the principal will be available to help and to make sure things go smoothly. With older children, you may want to emphasize that other kids will be dealing with the same problems.
Children often hear, "Things will be a lot different once you're in grade X!" This can be alarming. Emphasizing continuity, rather than dramatic changes, helps children feel less adrift. Ask your child, "How different are you the day after your birthday compared to the day before your birthday?" The answer, of course, is that although the chronological age has changed, your child hasn't changed noticeably.
Moving up a grade works the same way. You may want to tell your child, "Your classmates are the same kids you saw in June. Year to year, there are big differences; month to month, not so much." You could also tell your child, "Just like you managed the transition from first to second grade, and second to third grade, I'm sure you'll manage this transition, too. It's just another step on the same path."
(The author is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Learning Arena, an e-learning company)