6 Ways to Ease Your Child’s Back-to-School Anxiety
More kids in elementary, high school, and college report anxiety now than ever before. In fact, anxiety is the most common reason students seek counseling support, according to recent studies. So, it’s not surprising that many kids experience back-to-school anxiety. It’s a new routine with unfamiliar teachers and classmates. Kids who have been bullied in past years may worry that they’ll again be harassed in the new school year. Maybe the curriculum will be too difficult, or they won’t like their teachers. The thought of facing a new school year can be daunting for even the bravest of students.
And today’s students also face a fear that was likely not a problem when their parents attended school—the possibility of a school shooting. “More people have died or been injured in mass school shootings in the United States in the past 18 years than in the entire 20th century,” according to Springer.com, which published a study on School Shootings in the 20th and 21st Centuries. What was once unimaginable has become an all-too-common occurrence in schools across the country. While some experts say parents tend to have more anxiety about school shootings than kids, many students do fear for their safety as the threat of school violence continues to escalate and horrific scenes of the aftermath of shootings dominate the news and social media. And the efforts of schools to protect the students by instituting new procedures and frequent safety drills may just emphasize the dangers to some kids, which can increase their stress levels.
For some students, the uncertainty and stress they feel can be overwhelming. If not addressed, their anxiety may manifest as physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or extreme fatigue. In some cases, a professional counselor may be needed, but parents can take the following steps to ease their children’s anxiety and prepare them for a less stressful school year.
Discuss the Fears
A good start to easing a child’s back-to-school nerves is to give him or her the opportunity to voice specific fears. For example, ask what he is looking forward to as well as what makes him apprehensive about going back to school. Then empathize and acknowledge, rather than dismiss fears. Discuss ways to handle potential problems such as dealing with bullies, peer pressure, or other difficult situations. Role-playing may be helpful for younger kids. It’s important for children to know that they can turn to their parents for support and having an open discussion about their fears will reinforce that supportive role.
If you suspect your child is worried about school shootings, it’s best to have a conversation about it, especially if it’s been in the news recently. “Avoiding potentially scary topics can make them scarier to children,” according to the Child Mind Institute. Try to put the risk into perspective and offer reassurances, but don’t dismiss their fears or speak in unrealistic terms.
Reduce the Uncertainties
New teachers, new friends, sometimes even a new school building can all add up to fear of the unknown. Most children need a sense of predictability and security to feel at ease, so the thought of a new school year will fill them with trepidation. You can remove some of your children’s fear of the unknown by giving them a preview of what to expect. Take the worried child to the school and, if possible, walk through the halls, see the new classroom, and meet the teacher. Meeting neighborhood children who will be in the child’s class can also be helpful, so try to arrange a play date for younger kids.
Have Reasonable Expectations
Getting good grades is important, but a parent’s high expectations can lead to excessive student stress, which can have less than hoped for results. Instead of focusing on grades, emphasize the importance of learning and set short-term, achievable goals—like completing homework on time—at the beginning of the school year. Pediatrician William Sears cautions parents to “be realistic” with goals that are based on the child’s strengths. It may also be helpful to remind children that feeling comfortable in their new school setting will take time, they shouldn’t expect to make best friends and impress their teachers on the first day of school. And remember, feelings are not facts, so look for facts to counter their fears. If they worry they won’t make friends, remind them that they did make friends last year.
Adequate sleep, proper nutrition, and exercise will help combat stress and strengthen a child’s ability to face his fears. Sleep deprivation will only make the anxiety seem worse, so it’s important to transition children to their new sleep schedule before the first day of school. A week or so before school starts, ease children back into the earlier schedule by having them go to bed 10 minutes earlier each night until the new bedtime is reached. Remember to enforce healthy eating habits and provide a nutritious breakfast, especially once school starts. Lastly, ensure children are exercising, preferably outside. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise can “help reduce anxiety and improve mood,” with the added benefits of boosting self-confidence and providing distractions from worries.
Focus on the Positive
It’s easy for kids to let their fearful and negative thoughts about school cloud their outlook. Redirecting their thoughts to the positive aspects of the upcoming year will decrease their stress levels and improve their health. It also prevents them from dwelling on the negative. Remind them of their strengths and of the times they’ve overcome adversity in the past and how positive thinking can reduce stress.
Use Reading Resources
It’s always helpful to discover that others have struggled with the same problems and learned to overcome them. The weeks before and after school begins provide an ideal time to read books that address back-to-school concerns. Younger children may find these books especially helpful: First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg, This School Year Will Be THE BEST! by Kay Winters, and It’s Time for School, Stinky Face by Lisa McCourt.
Kids will pick up on cues from their parents, so be sure to be positive and encouraging. Of course, some situations may become serious, like bullying or falling significantly behind in class, so more direct intervention or a school change may be needed.
If kids are extremely anxious about going back to class, it may be a sign that their school is not providing them with the best learning environment. Many parents find online learning to be a better alternative. Online schools, powered by K12, offer families the security of learning from home with the advantages of certified teachers and a rigorous, interactive curriculum. Visit K12.com to learn more or find an online school in your state using the new K12 app.
Easing your child’s fears and anxiety will go a long way toward allowing them to do their best academically!
This article originally published in 2014 and has been revised and republished.
Elizabeth Street is a writer for Learning Liftoff. For the past 20 years, she has written newsletter and website content for nonprofit and corporate organizations on such topics as the plight of children of prisoners worldwide, the lack of prenatal care for mothers in developing countries, and child mentoring programs. She has a particular interest in the importance of providing all children with a quality education regardless of their family’s financial status or background. A native of Virginia, Elizabeth is a graduate of James Madison University and loves animals, with particular fondness for her two cats, Oscar and Emmy.