Recognizing Signs of Back to School Anxiety

Children who are either about to go to school for the first time or who are returning for another year of school often feel nervous. For many children it is, simply, the feeling of the unknown that frightens them: new situations, challenging tasks and unfamiliar people are common causes of anxiety. These feelings can also arise if the child has experienced troubles in school in previous years, such as having been bullied or learning difficulties.

Children often express many signals to their parents that show how anxious they are about going to school. Some children talk about their feelings and concerns, while others may demonstrate symptoms of anxiety through behaviors such as having difficulty separating from their parents, “temper tantrums,” sleep issues and/or increased fights with siblings.
By recognizing these signs of anxiety, parents can take steps to steer their children onto the pathway to success before the school year even begins. Here are four tips to parents looking to help prevent and/or calm back-to-school anxiety in their children:

1. Talk: Parents should try to keep the lines of communication open with their child so the child knows that they always have a trusted adult with whom they can talk. If you spot signs of anxiety, gently ask your child about how they are feeling and what they are expecting to happen. Talk about problem solving with your child. Help your child set realistic goals for him/herself.

2. Practice: Help ease your child into the school routine to quell their anxiety by practicing their school schedule before school begins for the year. Parents should start their children on a school routine at least a week before school begins. (And, perhaps even earlier if your child is prone to anxiety.) Since children tend to stay up later and sleep in during the summer (as well as have lots of sugary sweets!), try returning to a school bedtime and promote healthy eating habits at least a week before the school year begins. For children starting school for the first time or switching schools, you can also practice new school routines, such as packing lunches, getting on backpacks and walking to school.

3. Make it fun: Parents should make going to school a fun and exciting time for their child. This can be done by getting new back-to-school clothes or going out for a family dinner on the child’s first day of school.

4. Remind: When your child talks only about the negative aspects of school, acknowledge their fears and try to remind them about things they liked at school the previous year, or things you think they will like if they are just starting school. For example, how much fun they have when they play with their friends at recess or when they learn something new. This will bring the positive parts of school out in your child’s mind instead of only the negative.

It is common for children to feel nervous about starting a new school year or going to school for the first time, and every child experiences anxiety differently. Utilizing the four expert tips above — keeping lines of communication open, practicing a new routine, making it fun and reminding your child of all the things they enjoy about school — should help ease the stress of the transition back to school. If not, do not be afraid to seek professional help and guidance as sometimes children (and parents) need extra support.

You know your child best. If your child’s anxiety stays high for longer than anticipated (or is uncharacteristic of your child), it is a good idea to talk with a mental health professional.