Back to school. The transition from summer to school can be difficult and those three words can create a lot of anxiety in a household.
Change is hard and going back to school is fraught with changes: new teacher, new routine, new subjects, new clothes.
For a child who struggles with anxiety, particularly separation anxiety, this can be an extremely difficult time of year.
Is Your Child Struggling With Back-to-School Anxiety?
Anxious thoughts and feelings about returning to school are normal.
Taking notice of signs that your child may be experiencing something more than back-to-school jitters, and taking pro-active steps to help, will benefit your child and your entire family.
Some of the signs to look for are:
- increased crying
- changes in eating habits
- changes to sleeping behavior
- stomach issues, complaints of tummy-aches, or headaches
- nail biting, scratching skin, or other such physical attempts to self-soothe
Help Your Child Manage Back-to-School Anxiety
If you notice your child exhibiting any of the signs, even just one, take the following steps to help your child successfully transition back to school.
Let your child express their worries and fears
Don't dismiss your child's feelings or tell them that they have nothing to worry about.
Instead, let your child talk about their feelings. Let them know that there are steps they can take that will help them prepare. Ask your child to help you come up with solutions to things that they are worried about and develop a back-to-school plan together.
Remember not to pass your stress onto your kids
Take a moment to consider your own feelings about your child's back-to-school transition. Are you anxious about it? Stressed about the changes to your family's schedule and routine? Worried your child won't fit in or make friends?
Note your feelings and decide on the steps you need to take to ensure that you aren't placing your own anxiety about it onto your child.
Pick up your child's teacher assignment and/or class schedule before hand
If there is an open house at your child's school, make plans to attend it and allow your child time to meet and talk with their new teacher. If you are unable to attend it or if your school doesn't offer one, call the school office and see about making arrangements with the teacher before the first day.
Even if your child is attending the same school they attended in the past, walk around the building and let your child see the classroom, locate the nearest bathrooms, and practice how to get to their new class location from the entrance and where they will exit at the end of the day.
If the school is a new school for your child, take a tour of the entire building and let your child locate the cafeteria, the gym, art rooms etc.
Practice your routine
One of the things we found really helpful was to do two (or more) test-runs the week before. That week we all set our alarms to the get-up-for-school time and went through our morning routines. The kids got dressed and did anything else they needed to do to get ready. Then, with backpacks, we'd hop in the car or set off walking to get to school.
When you practice your routine, go over the drop-off routine as well, and what you and your child will need to do. Be sure to practice your goodbye, and remember: one cheery "Have a great day" is best for reassuring your child.
Going through the entire routine from getting up to getting to the school allows you all to get a good sense of anything you need to be aware of, including road conditions/detours.
*extra tip: if your child will be starting school with new equipment or different gear, such as a locker for the first time or a backpack with a different type of clasp, have your child practice with the lock and clasp until comfortable with it.
Our oldest son has always had a long list of "what ifs." Sometimes we use humor to help him through it, but one of the most helpful ways he learned to manage those on his own was by helping him develop scripts and/or actions for various scenarios.
When your child indicates things that worry them, help them prepare scripts or actions that they can take that might help navigate through the anxiety and the situation. Discuss, come up with, and act out different solutions together for various concerns and worries your child has, even for the worst-case scenarios they have in their mind.
Allow extra time in the mornings
Something will always come up in the morning. Homework will be misplaced, there is no milk for the cereal, favorite pants aren't clean.
Adding in extra time in your mornings won't make the homework, milk, and clean jeans magically appear, but the extra time allows everyone to get their heads back in the right place before leaving the house.
Try to leave the house early, and get to school early. Being late is difficult for everyone, but it can make an anxious child even more anxious.
Encourage good habits going into it
In the midst of anxiety, your child may not be getting enough sleep or may be forgetting to stay hydrated during the lead up to heading back to school. The anxiety of an already anxious child can be exacerbated by physical aspects that cause inflammation, dehydration, and tiredness.
Prior to the start of the school year re-establish a good bedtime routine. Help facilitate opportunities to exercise, make healthy food choices, rest, and hydrate.
Help your child practice mindfulness and gratitude
Practicing mindfulness and gratitude can help reduce anxiety. Establishing a habit of both can help your child work through the feelings and emotions that they are experiencing as they head back to school and adjust to the transition.
Our mindfulness journal is a great resource for getting started and you can print it again and again as needed!
Learn more about the benefits of practicing mindfulness and gratitude here and here
Get a journal for your child
Journaling is another great tool for helping your child work through feelings. If your child likes to write or draw, get them set up with a nice journal. Give them a place to write about their day and the thoughts they have about the days ahead.
Learn more about the benefits of journaling here
Back-to-school time is usually rough on the entire family and can cause everyone's anxiety to increase. Offer yourself and your child grace. Most children will settle into the routine after a week or two.
If your child's anxiety continues, increases, or your child begins to refuse to go to school, it is important to address it. Seek help from a trained professional to ensure that your child is able to learn to address the feelings and situations that are causing anxiety.
Do you have tips that have helped your child as they head back to school? Share them in comments.