What if I get lost?
Will I make new friends?
What if I don’t like my new teacher?
Will I have someone to sit with at lunch?
What if someone picks on me on the bus?
Will I have a lot more homework this year?
As your child keeps asking themselves more and more questions, and the potential problems grow larger and seem insurmountable, anxiety may prevail, and your child may start expressing fear about returning to school. Feeling anxious is normal for children returning to school whether it is the same school they have been attending for the past five years or a brand new school in a new town. For some children, these feelings grow and the child begins to develop school anxiety which can lead to school phobia or refusal. Here are some helpful tips on how to reduce school anxiety so your child can comfortably return to school:
- Get back into a school day routine. A few days before school starts, ease your child into the school day routine. This routine includes waking up, eating, and going to bed at regular times. Focus on morning and bedtime habits that may differ than summer time i.e. getting up earlier or packing a school bag. Electronics including TVs should be off for at least an hour before bedtime to help children fall asleep. Include the whole family in this new routine so your child does not feel alone in these changes. For children who having troubles getting up and out of bed, give them an alarm clock and let them practice using it. Start off each day on the right foot by having your child eat a healthy breakfast every morning. Anxious children often forget to eat or don’t feel hungry and coping with anxiety is more challenging when a child is hungry and irritable. Help your child pack their lunch and schoolbag, including healthy snacks, the night before.
- Let your child make decisions. Feeling like you are not in control is a major source of anxiety for children. Letting your child make decisions about the little things such as what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, and what lunch/snack to pack can give your child a sense of control. Create a list of school supplies together and plan a fun shopping trip with your child. Shopping for school supplies early helps prepare children for their return to the classroom. Ask your child to help plan school lunches and pick out outfits for the first week of school and let your child wear his or her favorite outfit on the first day.
- Set a good example. Pay attention to your own behavior. The first day of school can be anxiety provoking for parents who need to hand over care and responsibility of their child to school. Children take cues from their parents, so the more confident, comfortable, and positive you are, the more your child will understand there is no reason to be afraid. Young children, in particular, may experience separation anxiety or shyness initially. When saying goodbye in the morning, say it cheerfully – once and do not to linger! If the first few days are a little rough, try not to overreact. Reassure your child that you love them, will think of them during the day, and will be back to pick them up.
- Emphasize the positive. The first day of school is exciting, and most kids can think of things that they are looking forward to, whether it’s seeing friends and past teachers, new activities, playing sports, or new clothes. Focus on the positive aspects! Try to re-direct attention away from the worries and towards the positives. Ask your child, “What are you most excited about on your first day of school?” Most kids can think of something positive, even if it’s just wearing a new outfit or seeing an old friend. Often, fun aspects are simply getting overlooked by overwhelming worries.
- Talk about fears and feelings. Encourage your child to share his or her fears and ask your child what is making him or her worried. Your child may be worried about a new teacher or whether or not he or she will have friends in their new class. Do not reassure your child that everything will be fine, or tell him or her not to worry. Validate your child’s feelings by telling your child that it is normal to have concerns but let them know that you’re confident that he or she can handle it. Acknowledge anxiety over a bad experience the previous year. Children who had a difficult time academically or socially or were teased or bullied may be more fearful to return to school. Before and during the first few weeks of school, set up a regular time and place to talk. Some children feel most comfortable in a private space with your undivided attention (such as right before bed). Older children often welcome some sort of distraction to cut the intensity of their worries and feelings (such as driving in the car or taking a walk). A reassuring note in a child’s lunch can also help ease separation anxiety. Let your child know you care.
- Plan ahead for anxiety provoking situations. Encourage your child to think of ways to solve real or perceived potential problems. “If _______happens, what could you do?” Role play with your child. Have your child act out the part of a strict teacher or bullying classmate and help him or her model an appropriate response. Role-playing a certain situation with your child can help him or her feel more confident that he or she will be able to handle the situation. Teach and practice coping skills to use when feeling nervous, such as calm breathing. You will be giving your child the tools he or she needs to cope with unexpected situations that might arise. Encourage your child to use these strategies to manage difficult situations on his or her own, but also encourage your child to tell you, a counselor, or a teacher if the problem continues. For a younger child who is nervous about separation from you, suggest taking a special object to school that reminds him or her of you.
- Have a trial run. If your child is starting at a new school, take a tour of the school. Show your child the classrooms, the cafeteria, and the bathrooms. If possible, set up a meeting with your child and his or her new teacher before school starts. Mapping out classrooms and finding lockers in advance can help an older child. If the school offers an orientation program, sign your child up. This can be especially beneficial to a child who is new to the area. Your child will not only learn rules and procedures, but also will have the opportunity to make new friends. Practice the walk or drive to school. For children taking the school bus, talk about bus safety. You may want to describe and even draw out the bus route, including where the bus goes and how long it takes to get to school.
- Ask for support. Have your child walk to school with a friend for the first couple of days. See if there is a familiar school mate who can sit with your child on the bus and walk them into the building. Talk to your school counselor and/or teacher about your child’s anxiety. They may be able to give you some specific advice for their school or make plans for the child ahead of time to reduce anxiety. Ask the school if they have a buddy system for new students.
- Arrange play dates. Try to arrange get-togethers with some of your child’s classmates before school starts and during the first weeks of schools to help your child re-establish positive social relationships. If you are new to the neighborhood, try to meet some of the new neighbors and arrange play dates so your child knows some classmates on the first day of school.
- Praise and reward your child for brave behaviors!