As summer winds down, parents are getting their kids ready for a new school year by coming up with fresh lunch ideas, stocking up on binders and notepads, and finding out who their new teachers will be.
And there’s another crucial part to equipping them to go back to school – getting children mentally prepared.
The new school year is exciting, but it’s also stressful, especially for those transitioning to new schools or into grades with increased academic demands. Children of all ages typically worry about the social aspects – whether they will make friends, and whether their classmates will like them or be kind to them.
Karen Stewart, MD, adult and child and adolescent psychiatrist for Kaiser Permanente in Georgia, offers advice on how to reduce the back-to-school anxiety.
Awareness of school-related stress. It’s important to be aware of kids’ worries and know how to respond. Parents and caretakers play a critical role in helping children understand, manage, and overcome these worries. Make sure your child knows it’s normal to be nervous.
Find out why your child is scared – it’s important to listen and show empathy. A common concern in younger children is the uncertainty of who will play with them. If possible, help your child get to know or meet classmates with a play date at the park, or go shopping for school supplies together.
Also, be mindful of your own emotions: Parental stress can be picked up by your child so stay calm, watch what you say, and show confidence.
Problem-solve and plan. Children often seek reassurances that nothing bad will happen. Don’t brush off these fears. Instead, discuss their worries, and encourage your child to think of solutions for potential issues. When they are part of the solution, they feel empowered and have more buy-in. Role-playing can boost a child’s confidence.
School violence is also a cause for anxiety. Manage that worry with open conversations and having a plan of action, such as how to reach each other if there’s a shooting on campus. Also reassure them that school violence is not a frequent occurrence.
Get them excited. Talking about past positive school experiences can brighten your child’s attitude. Point out their strengths and talents. Then go shopping together for school supplies and let them select some purchases. When children feel included, they are more likely to embrace this start of the school year.
Get into a routine a week or two before school. A regular routine can ease anxiety and lessen the transition. Start with going to bed early and getting up at the time they would for school.
Tour the school, visiting their classroom and showing them where key facilities, such as bathrooms, the cafeteria, or administrative offices are located if it is a new school. Let the teacher or school counselor know if your child is very anxious. Many schools have systems in place, such as assigned peer buddies.
Praise, notes, during the first week. Organizing everything together the night before school begins can cut down on first-day jitters.
Younger children may feel comforted by bringing to school a special object that reminds them of home. For an older child, a reassuring note in a lunchbox can help them feel better.
When school starts, praise and reward your child. Celebrate the first week of school and his or her resiliency and bravery during an important and challenging transition. You can treat him or her to special pencils or school supplies, an outing or a favorite meal.
If anxiety continues. Don’t ignore behavior that lasts well past the first day of school. Behavior to be on the watch for might include sudden poor sleeping or eating habits, refusal to go to school, or emotional outbursts.
By talking to his or her teacher or school counselors, or discussing your concerns with your pediatrician, you can better judge if your child needs additional help and support.
Karen R. Stewart, MD is a board certified adult and child adolescent psychiatrist, practicing at Kaiser Permanente in Georgia. Before attending medical school at Morehouse School of Medicine, Dr. Stewart was a high school teacher in the Atlanta area. Dr. Stewart graduated from Morehouse School of Medicine and went on to complete her adult psychiatry residency and child and adolescent fellowship at Emory University.