How to Ease Back to School Anxiety

It’s that time of year again! September signals the back to school season and the wave of new clothes, new crayons, and new memories that come along with it. But that isn’t all the classroom brings! Many kids experience a wave of anxiety about making new friends and starting over in a different grade, or even a different school. 

We asked licensed neuropsychologist and school psychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez how parents can help ease back to school anxiety for themselves and their Minis. Here’s what she had to say:

Start early. Over the summer, most families take their cues from the sun and stay up later. While it may be tempting to keep the late-night fun going up until the end, starting your school routine a few weeks early can help ease the transition back to school. Starting two to three weeks before the advent of school, begin going to bed and getting up close to when you need to for school, and try to eat on a more regular schedule as well. This advice isn’t just for little kids— teens and adults need quality sleep for proper functioning as well, and getting your schedule straight now will help ensure that you all start the school year off more prepared and don’t feel as much anxiety over the advent of that first day.

Moods are contagious. It is important not to neglect your own welfare before that of your child’s. Their stress can often be your stress. They’re worried because they see you’re worried. Preparing for big changes and the first day of school can grind you down long before your child starts to worry. Take some time to relax and be mindful of your own wellbeing. Sit and watch a family movie after a long day, meditate for 30 minutes, make a cup of herbal tea. Find what it takes to help you destress and you will find that if you’re in a good mood, your children will find it easier to be in one as well.

Give your child a preview. Talk to your child about what they’re going to be doing in the upcoming school year. If your child is starting school for the first time, see if there’s a kindergarten orientation or a way to meet their teacher before school begins. Whether they’re starting a new elementary school or going back to the same one, go explore it with your child. Review where their class will be, visit the cafeteria, the library or the art room. Take them to the playground (with a friend who’ll be going to their school, if possible) to help them get adjusted and feel comfortable at the school. Give your child a “preview” of the new faces and places they’ll be seeing. This can help to “right size” the school in your child’s mind and take the fear and mystery out of it. This will also help ease any fears you may have yourself about how well your child will cope in this new environment.

Shopping together for school supplies. Shopping together for school supplies, and using the shopping trip as a time to talk about what to expect at school, can be a healthy way to keep you and your child talking about the positives.

Facilitate friendships. Parents should also try to connect their child with future classmates. “If a child knows someone who is going to be in the same classroom, that can greatly reduce their apprehension and fear of the unknown,” says Dr. Hafeez. Help prepare kids for school year socializing by arranging a couple of playdates with classmates and reminding them that they’ll be seeing their familiar school friends again soon.

Talk up the positives. Field trips, old friends, new classes, sporting events, after-school activities. There’s plenty to get fired up about! Remind your child and the enthusiasm will be contagious.

Sick of school. Literally. Nervousness over heading back to class can make kids feel sick. They may complain of stomachaches, headaches, nausea and dizziness, especially on Sunday evenings after feeling well all weekend. If you observe potential symptoms of stress as the start of school approaches, Dr. Hafeez suggests having a candid conversation with your child. “Don’t just accept ˜fine’ if you ask your child, “How are you?” or, “How was your day?” Ask questions that can’t be answered “yes or no,” like, ˜How do you feel about going back to school?” Then, let them talk, and don’t try to fix what they say.”

When anxiety about school “masks” something else. Kids of any age who don’t want to go to school, or avoid it, may be doing so because of a specific issue beyond general anxiety, worry or depression, notes Dr. Hafeez. “Children who are bullied or teased often become anxious about going to school, and if the problem is not addressed, the anxiety will continue along with a host of other problems,” she says. “Similarly, children who are avoiding school may be doing so because school is hard for them- school anxiety many times emerges just before a child is diagnosed with a learning difficulty.”

On a research kick? You’ll love this article on How to Teach Your Kids the Three P’s and these 3 Parenting Tips from the Happiest Place on the Planet.

Opening Image: Michelle Drewes for Mini Magazine