New situations are difficult for many children. Going back to school is a filled with new situations—a new classroom, teacher, classmates, schedule, and responsibilities. Think about how anxious you would be about starting a new job every year of your life and you will know what children experience with the start of the new school year. But there are ways to reduce your child’s anxiety about going back to school.
Ten Ways to Reduce Your Child's Anxiety About Returning to School
1) Start the routine before the child returns to school. Start putting your child to bed at the time when he/she will go to bed during the school year. Wake your child at the time that he/she will wake up to go to school. This can help your child to ease back into the routines that come with returning to school.
2) Visit the school and teacher before the school year begins if your child seems particularly anxious. Many teachers are happy to have you visit them while they are preparing the classroom for the new school year. This reduces children’s anxiety about who their teacher will be. Instead, they will know that they will know the smiling face of their teacher on the first day.
3) Talk to your child about how he/she is feeling about going back to school and validate your child’s emotions. Often we try to calm our children by saying things like “You’ll be fine. You’re not scared,” or “Don’t worry. It will be fine.” This does not help. Imagine if you were worrying about something and someone told you not to worry. Would it make you stop worrying? Usually this just makes a child feel that it is not okay to express emotions like fear. Instead, you want to validate what the
child is feeling by saying things like “It’s okay to be afraid. Lots of children are afraid,” if your child expresses anxiety about returning to school. You also want to convey that your child can handle the anxiety and returning to school by saying things like “But when you are afraid of something, you have to be brave and face your fears. I know that you can be brave and do this.”
4) Identify exciting and positive things about returning to school—such as seeing old friends, getting to paint or participate in a sport. If you can help your child to balance the positive and scary things about returning to school, your child may also experience some excitement about returning to school.
5) Send your child to school with a little piece of you. This can be a picture of you that you put in his/her lunch box, a little note saying that you love your child, a special treat for recess or snack, a T-shirt that your child wears that is just like one that you have, or anything that will remind your child that he/she is loved by you.
6) Make a scrapbook about school and add fun things to it at the end of the day. Maybe the first thing in the scrapbook for each school year is a picture that you take of your child on the first day. Then at the end of the day, your child can draw things related to their first school day. This gives the child a happy routine for returning to school and for telling you all about how the first day went.
7) Have something special for the child at the end of the school day. This could be a special first day of school dinner or snack or some type of an activity that you do together (like baking cookies or going to the park). Tell your child that the first day of school is an exciting day and because of that, you do something special to celebrate it. This will give the child a reason to look forward to the first day of school.
8) Give your child some choices about small things—what to wear on the first day (if there is no uniform), what to eat for breakfast, or what backpack or pencil case he brings to school. When a child has to go to school and doesn’t want to, this can make a child feel as though things are out of the child’s control. Going to school is not optional, but things like what your child wears or what his book bag looks like may be within his/her control. Your child having some control over small aspects of the day can help your child to feel that he/she does have some control over his/her life, which can make going to school feel a bit less like a chore.
9) Stay calm. You may experience some anxiety about how that first day of school will go. If you appear nervous or stressed about it, your child will feel more stressed about it. Children look to their parents to determine the appropriate reactions to situations. If a parent is stressed, the child will resonate with that and become stressed. If you remain calm and positive about the return of the school year, your child is more likely to resonate with that. But, don’t be false! If you are falsely chipper, your child will notice that and be uneasy. Just try to remain calm and remind yourself of the exciting and positive things about your child returning to school.
10) Remember that anxiety goes down naturally and your child’s anxiety will reduce as well. The body has a built in anxiety-reduction system and it kicks in when you are in anxiety-provoking situations. It can take some time for the anxiety-reduction system to actually reduce your anxiety (sometimes as long as 20-40 minutes) but it does happen. So allow your child’s anxiety to reduce on its own. Do NOT take your child out of school because of his/her anxiety or allow him/her to skip a day of school because of the anxiety. That just maintains your child’s anxiety and conveys that he/she really cannot handle the anxiety. Instead, you want your child to learn that he/she can manage anxiety and be brave. This will go a long way towards your child handling struggles later on in life!
Copyright Amy Przeworski
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