Preparing Your Anxious Child for the Start of School


school anxietyIs it that time already? With summer winding down and teachers prepping their classrooms, you can almost hear the schoolyard noises starting to rise to a level of chaotic excitement. Sometimes, however, you may see that your child is not excited, but anxious and fearful over the start of school.

School anxiety is common among both children and adults, and some experts feel it is on the rise in younger children, including preschoolers, due to the increased expectations placed on them. Anxious feelings are normal and expected whenever there is transition and change to one’s routine, no matter the age of the child. In fact, the start of the new school year can be disruptive and stressful for the entire family! So what can you do? The key is to prepare your child physically and emotionally as best you can to help ensure he has the best possible start to the school year.

Open your Family’s Lines of Communication

It is very important to ensure that your child has the opportunity to discuss and share his feelings and concerns about the start of school. Allow him to express his fears, talk about his uncertainties, discuss any problems with the previous school year, and problem-solve and plan for different situations that may occur. Tell him it is normal to have some worries over this new experience, and offer productive reassurances. Remind him that all the other children are a little nervous too, as the beginning of a new school year is new for them as well. If possible, try to be home when your child arrives home from school that first week, but if you can’t do this, set aside a time each night to discuss the day’s events with him. Give him your undivided attention and be sincere in your interest about what occurred. You may even want to talk about your own school experiences, how you felt and what made your school days special. Your stories will help normalize any difficult feelings he may be having and work towards overcoming school anxiety. Finally, become a coach to help your child problem-solve his concerns. Role-play any specific situations that worry him, social skills that he needs to further develop, ways to react to potential situations, and how to speak up for himself. Practicing these can give your child confidence. If you find your child is scared of falling behind in his schoolwork, talk about ways you can help him at home or get help from others, such as a tutor, to assure him that he can be an effective student. Keeping communication open allows your child the opportunity to keep his fears from building, because he knows you are available to talk and discuss them. Communication may not be able to prevent all school anxiety, but it can help your child better understand that you want to know when he is struggling.

Do a Little Advance Preparation

Nothing is more helpful in conquering the unknown than exploring it with another trusted individual. About a week before school starts, set a time to go to the school with your child to explore the building, tour the cafeteria, look at his classroom, find the closest bathroom, meet his teacher, point out where the bus will pick him up and drop him off, and try out some of the playground equipment. Talk about the school routine while you walk around the facility. At home, begin the school day routine of waking up at the required time, getting dressed first thing and following the expected bedtime routine. Everyone at home needs to participate in this so your child does not feel isolated in following this new schedule. Get your child to help you plan his first week’s lunches and outfits to wear to school so he feels like a part of the decision-making process. Write down the details of the school routine to help your child remember them, such as his teacher’s and bus driver’s names, his classroom number, the time he has lunch, and his locker number. If you notice that he seems anxious about his social skills, arrange for a few pre-first day playdates so he can reacquaint himself with his schoolmates. Then he will see someone familiar in school on the first day!

Accentuate the Positive

When I focus on something positive, I generally tend to minimize any negatives that are causing me to worry. Your child will, too! Plan a fun day of shopping for new school supplies and a backpack. Let your child help you with the supply list and pick out some fun items. Ask him to make a list of the things he is most excited about for his first day of school—seeing his friends, using his new crayons, recess—the list could be endless! Make the first week of school a fun family event by having meals together, going out for ice cream, serving a special food at dinner, and talking about something new you each learned. You may even want to write a special note to your child and pack it in his lunch to let him know you are thinking about him.

Focus on Providing the Basics

As boring as this may seem, providing the basic supports that your child will need is crucial to starting the school day off right! Be sure your child has been able to get enough sleep the night before school. Provide a nutritious breakfast for him and make sure that he has time to eat it. Anxious children often forget to eat, act like they are not hungry, and don’t get enough sleep, which often increases their anxiety. Offer healthy snacks at the end of the school day and keep a regular routine in your home. Children thrive on consistency and predictability.

Discuss Your Expectations with Your Child

If your child had a particularly bad year at school the previous year due to poor behavior or a failure to comply with his school work, discuss in advance with him what guidelines you expect, as well as consequences of what will happen if he does not comply. Make a list of rewards for improved behaviors. Express confidence in him that he will behave better because it is a new year and he is older. If your child tries to avoid going to school, be supportive but firm in explaining that it is his job as a child to attend school. Remind him of other situations where he was afraid of something at first, but later he was glad he did it. Assure him that you will be there to talk about it once he comes home.

Be Willing to Explore the Reasons for Your Child’s School Anxiety

As a parent, it is important to rule out any reasons for your child’s anxiety about going to school, or the behaviors he engages in to avoid doing so. If headaches or stomachaches persist for an extended period of time, seek the guidance of your pediatrician to rule out any medical conditions. If your child continues to have meltdowns, regresses repeatedly to toddler behaviors, is unable to sleep, is terrified of being separated from you, or cannot be coaxed into the school building, accept that there may be a reason for this. You may need to talk with his teacher, the bus driver, the cafeteria or playground monitors, or others to see if there is something triggering these behaviors. Is something scaring him? Is he developmentally unable to cope with his new surroundings? Is he being bullied or ridiculed? Is there something going on at home that is causing him distress? Perhaps a divorce or death of a pet is making it difficult for him to concentrate on school. Finally, if several weeks have gone by and there is no change to your child’s school anxiety, it may be time to seek the services of a mental health professional. Although school anxiety is not a psychiatric diagnosis, an anxiety disorder is, and your child may need treatment. This can be in the form of individual therapy, teaching relaxation and coping skills, medication, or group counseling. It’s recommended that you use a mental health professional who has experience working with children your child’s age.

Pay Attention to Your Own Behaviors

As a parent, letting our child move to independence without us by their side is difficult. Handing your child over to a teacher who must watch over 20-30 other students is scary for you, but you need to let go of your own separation anxiety. Understand that your role in this process could be exacerbating the stress in your child, especially if they see that you are having a hard time. You need to express confidence and reassurance to your child. You need to be cheerful when telling them goodbye. It is important to remember that you are the one modeling comfort and confidence to your child and offering him the support he needs to address his school fears.

Remember that going to school can create a wide range of emotion in everyone concerned. However, experiencing some school anxiety at the beginning of the year will not determine the success of your child’s entire school year. By utilizing these suggestions, offering your child encouragement and support, and giving him the positive feedback he needs, you will help give him an educational and social experience to treasure in the years to come.Anxious child school

Karlene Edgemon works as MLJ Adoptions’ Director of Social Services. Throughout her 25 year social services career, Karlene has been able to watch adoption transform the lives of children and she is always brainstorming new ways to support adoptive families before, during and after their adoption.

Karlene Edgemon works as MLJ Adoptions’ Director of Social Services. Throughout her 25 year social services career, Karlene has been able to watch adoption transform the lives of children and she is always brainstorming new ways to support adoptive families before, during and after their adoption.