Even excited kids get anxious about back to school. Here are ways to help them cope.
Colin* was about to start grade 6 at a new school. At an orientation event, he became clearly unnerved as he struggled with the lock combination on a sticky locker. His concern, says mom Lynn Brown,* “was whether he’d be able to open his locker during school when they only had four minutes between classes.” (*Names have been changed.)
Colin’s particular fear is surprisingly common, and so is his apprehension about going back to school. Most kids, even excited ones, are fretful about something that may not always be obvious to a parent. So what can you do? Read on.
What kids worry about
Age, experience, and temperament all determine a child’s concerns. Young children with little experience outside the home may exhibit separation anxiety. “Being in the care of adults other than their parents can be initially stressful for some children,” says Deb Cockerton, a child and youth behavioural counsellor. “These youngsters also worry about practical matters, such as finding the bathroom and getting on the right bus.”
When they’re a bit older, children worry about whether they’ll have friends in their class and where they’ll sit at lunch. Tween-age students are “concerned about how they will fit in with their peers, and how they will do academically,” say Cockerton. The start of puberty and issues like cyberbullying, body image, and athletic ability may be additional stressors.
Some stressors are not obvious to parents. Kerry Norris, principal and longtime educator says, “There are always some things we don’t think of as adults… We’ve had little ones who are afraid to flush the toilet in the loud echo-prone bathrooms.” Older kids who are beginning to measure themselves against peers may feel humiliated if they wear the “wrong” clothes or come to school with a “nerdy” haircut.
Major transitions can cause feelings of insecurity even if a child has previously done well. Brown says that Colin was “extremely successful and a model student” during his elementary years. Yet, as a kid who “thrives on routine and predictability,” it took time for Colin to adjust to the new academic expectations, the more complicated schedule, and the pre-teen social dynamics of his new school.
Signs of anxiety
Kids express anxiety in many ways. Some are vocal and quite specific about their concerns. But more often it is a child’s behaviour that indicates his distress. “The younger child can become more ‘clingy,’ not wanting to leave mom’s side,” says Cockerton. The tummy ache is a common symptom of stress in younger kids.
Older children can also suffer physical symptoms, such as headaches. They may eat more or less than usual when they’re feeling anxious, and Norris notes they may also experience sleep interruptions and moodiness.
How parents can help
Kids feel more confident and competent when they come to school prepared. Experts like Cockerton and Norris agree that parents play a leading role in helping kids cope with back-to-school fears.
◆ Talk to your child about what worries her.Provide accurate information if she is misinformed.
◆ Listen carefully and respond empathetically. Avoid saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine!” Focus on your child’s very real concerns.
◆ Create a safe space. The tween who resists face-to-face conversation may “open up” at unexpected moments. Look for natural opportunities to listen and check in during daily activities – riding in the car, doing a chore, playing a game.
◆ Read books. Cockerton says reading books about back to school can give kids “language to express what they are feeling.” School-challenged characters can also normalize a child’s feelings. (See “Books” sidebar).
◆ List it. Help kids focus on the positive by listing the things they’re excited about as well as the things that scare them.
◆ Take a tour. Travel the routes a child will likely take – classroom-to-bathroom, lunchroom-to-playground – before school starts. Bus training is also available for kids without experience. Older students can get a better idea of what to expect by looking at the schedule and textbooks, participating in orientation events, and talking to senior students who know the environment and routine.
◆ Meet and greet. Make introductions to teachers and other school personnel before school starts.
◆ Brainstorm. Help your child build a repertoire of possible solutions to a problem. Brown’s son, Colin, was anxious at the thought of changing into his gym clothes amongst other boys. She says, “We helped him figure out where he could change and feel he had some privacy.”
◆ Play “what if…” What would you do if you forgot your lunch? What would you do if you couldn’t find your homework? This technique gets even the youngest kids involved in problem solving. As principal Norris says, “Developing the skills to solve problems independently lasts a lifetime!”
◆ Role play. Act out potentially uncomfortable interactions: What can you say if you want to be friends with someone? What can you do if someone is mean to you?
◆ Resist overscheduling. Keep extracurricular activities manageable, especially during the first months of school. Kids need downtime to unwind and reflect.
◆ Show confidence. Let your child know you trust her ability to succeed. Remind her of the many challenges she’s faced and managed in the past.
◆ Check parental fears. As Cockerton says, “Children are very good at reading their parents’ emotions and if the parent is worried about how their child will do at school, the child will interpret that as ‘something to be worried about.’”
◆ Make home comfortable. Kids who are worried about a parent’s physical or mental health may be reluctant to leave home. When major life events (divorce, death, a family move) occur, maintain as consistent a routine as possible.
◆ Get help. If your child’s difficulties persist, Brown says, “Networking with the school personnel is a critical piece of the puzzle…Open communication with school teachers, counselors, and others is paramount to ensuring the most successful year possible.”
Soothe the Stress with Belly Breaths
An anxious child tends to take quick, shallow breaths. A good self-calming technique is the “belly breath.” Here’s how to do it:
◆ Sit comfortably.
◆ Place one hand lightly on your belly.
◆ Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four.
◆ Feel your belly rise.
◆ Hold the breath for a count of two.
◆ Let your breath out slowly through your mouth as you count to four.
◆ Repeat several times.
To Read with Little Ones:
First Grade Jitters, by Robert Quackenbush (2010)
I Am Too Absolutely Small for School, by Lauren Child (2005)
Kindergarten Rocks, by Katie Davis (2008)
The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn (2007)
For Older Kids:
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, by Lenore Look (2009), ages 6-9
Back to School, Mallory, by Laurie B. Friedman (2005), ages 7-10
Smile, by Raina Telgemeier (2010), ages 8-12
13 Helpful Phrases You Can Say to Calm an Anxious Child. Perfect for the parent who feels stuck and (and ineffective) saying, “Don’t worry — you’ll be fine!” This blog provides terrific (and very helpful) alternatives. lemonlimeadventures.com/what-to-say-to-calm-an-anxious-child
AnxietyBC provides printable information on coping with back-to-school fears, dealing with separation anxiety, teaching relaxation techniques, and much more. www.anxietybc.com/anxiety-PDF-documents
KidsHealth provides excellent information on everything from safety and school jitters, to homework and health issues. www.kidshealth.org