Summer is coming to a close, and for many children, heading back to school can be an exciting time. They look forward to seeing old friends and meeting new teachers. However, some students may face reentry into the school environment with anxiety. They may worry about everything or focus on one specific issue: They won’t be able to keep up with the work, the other children won’t like them, or perhaps the teacher will be unkind.
There are some ways you can help prepare your child for back-to-school:
Look for warning signs: Many children can’t express their anxiety in words, so take a look at their behaviors.
Are your children excited about back-to-school shopping or do they keep delaying picking out a backpack or new clothes? Do your children avoid conversations about school? As summertime activities wind down, are they showing increased somatic symptoms like complaining about stomach pains or headaches? Are they acting withdrawn or irritable?
Meet the teacher prior to the first day of school: You may want to meet the teacher first to discuss concerns about your child’s anxiety. This is especially important if your child has a history of school-related anxiety, and/or an IEP or 504B. A second appointment can be made so your child can meet the teacher alone, without any classmates around. This gives your child the chance to feel comfortable and reduce fears about the teacher. Eliminating the unknowns will greatly reduce anxiety.
If this is a new environment, it will help to drive your child back and forth to school: Whether your child will walk, take the bus, or be driven to school, becoming familiar with the route may ease back-to-school anxiety. If your child is already familiar with the route to school, making a pre-first day run will provide a reminder of where school is and create a feeling of more connectedness on the first day back.
Reintroduce the school routine: During the summer your child might stay up later, sleep in, and eat throughout the day. Slowly start moving back bedtime and waking your child up earlier in the morning. Set mealtimes to coincide with the times scheduled for eating during the school year.
Set up play dates with classmates: If your child has not spent any time with classmates over the summer, try to set up some activities for getting together with friends from school. Cultivating friendships can reduce some of the social anxiety your child might be feeling.
Try to be home more during back-to-school time: Make it a point to be at home for your child to provide support through the transition. If you work away from home, try to arrange your hours so you are able to drop your child off and are home in time for after school or an early dinner. Spend time talking to your child about the school day — such as what he or she liked and might have questions about. Giving more attention will help your child feel more secure about connections to you and home, and help in navigating back-to-school time.
Talk about the upcoming school year: Keep the conversations positive and light. Remind your child about what he or she likes about school and the friends who are there and encourage talk about what your child is feeling. Be empathetic but avoid giving advice. Talk about strategies that have helped in the past. Emphasize that everyone feels nervous from time to time and your child is not alone with these feelings.
Discuss what might frighten your child about school: Some common reasons children become anxious are fear of failure, taking tests, meeting new people, talking in front of the class, or separating from you. You can address these worries better if you can narrow down their triggers. When your child is anxious, don’t brush it aside or negate these feelings; they are real and can be scary. Your child needs to know that you understand and are willing to listen.
Be mindful of your own anxiety levels: You want to set a good example by showing your child that you can manage your own stress. Back-to-school time can be hectic for parents, so taking care of yourself is important, too.
Keep an eye on their school anxiety: You know your child best. If you sense that back-to-school anxiety may be rooted in something more serious, such as an anxiety disorder or a problem with a bully, talk with your child, the teachers, and the school counselor.
Before you know it, your family will be back in the school groove, and you’ll be sailing smoothly through the fall semester.
JFS MetroWest offers a broad range of services for children and their families, including parent/child psychotherapy, play therapy, and services for parents of children with special needs. Visit jfsmetrowest.org for more information.