Back to School: Coping with Student Stress and Anxiety
The thought of facing a new school year can be daunting for even the bravest of students. It’s a new routine with unfamiliar teachers and classmates. For some students, the uncertainty and stress 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. AnxietyBC.com offers several tips on speaking to children about their fears. 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.
Reduce the Uncertainties
New teachers, new friends, sometimes even a new school building can all add up to fear of the unknown. Many 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. A parent can help remove some of their 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 playdate 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 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 seriously behind in class, so more direct intervention may be needed. Some parents have found online learning alternatives effective, such as programs available through K12.
Facing fears is a part of growing up, but so is learning to cope. Try these coping strategies for a more positive back-to-school experience and let us know if you’ve found other ways to ease your students’ anxieties in the comments section.
This article was updated August 2015
Elizabeth Street is a writer and managing editor 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.