The start of a new school year can be an exciting and fun time for kids, but many experience stress and anxiety over all of the changes a new year brings. Read on for expert advice on how to cope with some of the most common stressors your child may confront when the school bell rings.
An anxious temperament
It’s helpful to understand your child’s temperament. “Some children have difficulty with transitions and need a lot of preparation and lead time to be ready,” says Dr. James Sparing, clinical faculty in child psychiatry at UCLA. However, family members may share temperament traits that undermine easygoing transitions. It’s common for anxious kids to have anxious parents, Sparing says, and anxious parents often have trouble helping a child cope with anxiety. He recommends that the calmer parent be enlisted to help mentor a child’s transition from home to school.
Sick of school – literally
Nervousness over heading back to class can make kids feel sick. They may complain of stomachaches, headaches, nausea and dizziness, especially on Sunday evenings after feeling well all weekend. If you observe potential symptoms of stress as the start of school approaches, Sparing suggests having a candid conversation with your child. “Don’t just accept ‘fine’ if you ask your child, ‘How are you?’ or, ‘How was your day?’ Ask questions that can’t be answered ‘yes or no,’ like, ‘How do you feel about going back to school?’ Then, let them talk, and don’t try to fix what they say.”
Dr. Robert Murray of Ohio State University, a spokesman for theAmerican Academy of Pediatrics, says: “Don’t rush to the rescue. Let the child first know they are understood by validating their emotional state. Then challenge misperceptions. Ask, ‘Could you think about this another way?’”
Nita Ferjo of Westwood, Calif., who holds a doctorate in education, adds, “Ask about previous experiences they had and how they resolved those issues. The most common anxieties experienced by younger children on return to school is fear of the unknown – who is my teacher, where is my classroom, will I get lunch, who will pick me up after school, will I know anybody?” Understanding what’s upsetting to your child can help you and your child prepare more effectively for the upcoming changes.
Fear of the unfamiliar
For many children, going back to school isn’t going back at all, it’s moving forward into the unknown. They’re facing new classrooms, new teachers, new classmates – even a new school. Ferjo says parents can help children adjust to a new environment by taking the child to the school before the first day to walk around, see the campus, find the classroom and meet the teacher. She encourages parents to build a partnership with their child’s new teacher. “For one very anxious young child,” she says, “I had her mother put her cellphone number on a slip of paper for the childto carry in her sock, so she knew that she could always get an adult to call her mom. We advised th teacher of her anxieties, and no calls were needed.”
However, Ferjo warns, “Teachers want to know your child but are extremely busy getting to know everyone when school first starts. Parents need to make an appointment unless it is an emergency. You can send the teacher an e-mail or short note if there is something critical to be addressed.”
Making friends and fitting in
Though schoolwork is important, children also need positive social experiences at school to succeed. Making friends can be difficult for some children, especially if they get nervous around strangers. “For the child who is shy or new in a school, one thing a teacher can do is to ask a popular, outgoing child to befriend them and introduce them to the others,” Murray says.
As children mature into adolescence, friends and peer groups take on an even greater role and can help children develop a sense of self-identity, self-confidence and social skills. Some children struggle to fit in, especially if they feel different from their classmates because of their size, physical maturation or culture.
Ferjo explains that junior high and middle school – where social, emotional and physical changes become major factors – have very different issues. Options for helping young people find a “social home” include participating in sports, joining clubs and performing community service. As parents, you can work with other families to ensure your children will have welcoming, inclusive, safe and inspiring group activities.
Some children are afraid to go to school because they have been bullied. Though most bullies are classmates, some of whom may have mental health issues, students can be bullied by older children or even by school personnel.
“Bullying is a serious issue and needs to be addressed both from the point of view of the bully, who needs to be brought in check, and the victim, who needs new skills to avoid or neutralize the interaction,” Ferjo says. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, these skills include learning how to look the bully in the eye, standing confidently and staying calm, walking away, and saying, “I don’t like what you are doing” or, “Please do not talk to me like that.”
Encourage your child to seek out welcoming and caring friends and to report any abusive behavior to a teacher or principal. Parents should inform school administrators if they discover their child is being bullied. It’s critical that schools take steps to ensure the safety of all children.
Straight A’s – at what cost?
Loving parents want what’s best for their children, but their good intentions can sometimes go awry. Excessive pressure to succeed can cause emotional stress for a child. “If parents become aware of children’s distress, they need to make some choices,” Sparing says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to “examine your expectations for your child; are they realistic?” Not every child can be a straight-A student, and setting the bar too high can discourage children. Instead, parents are encouraged to support a love of reading and learning and to promote progress by setting up short-term, achievable goals that help children gain skills and self-confidence in the classroom or on the field. According to the AAP, for example, “Many parents and coaches consider winning the most important aspect of sports. Young athletes should be judged on effort, sportsmanship, and hard work. They should be rewarded for trying hard and for improving their skills rather than punished or criticized for losing a game or competition. The main goal should be to have fun and learn lifelong physical activity skills.”
When to ask for professional help
Mild anxiety in response to life changes is to be expected. But some children develop persistent fears or fears that seem out of proportion to the situation. They may develop physical symptoms such as palpitations, sweating, trembling and shaking, diarrhea, a flushed face, severe nausea or disturbing thoughts and images, and they may try to avoid going to school completely.
“The longer the avoidance goes on,” Sparing warns, “the bigger the problem. Home schooling or distance learning can accommodate a student but can make the problem worse and should be a temporary strategy or last resort while a program is put in place to help the child get back in school.”
Sparing encourages parents to work with the school’s teachers, nurses and counselors and to consult with their child’s primary-care doctor, who may refer them to a specialist such as a child psychiatrist. He recommends that parents start by “making contact with your child’s teacher to problem solve, and include school counselors and administration, when appropriate, to deal with issues.”
Getting off to a good start
Back-to-school butterflies aren’t unusual, especially if your child has a “slow to warm up” temperament. Allowing your child to safely express concerns and fears can help, as can reassurance that he is not alone. Finding a familiar classmate or friend for your child to walk to school or ride the bus with can help make the first day easier. A healthy breakfast and lunch can help your child focus on new tasks without intrusive hunger pangs. If your child is a picky eater, pack a favorite sandwich or snack for the school day, just in case the cafeteria menu offers less desirable or unhealthy options.
At school, most teachers will try to ease students’ worries in the first few hours and days of class. If anxiety does manifest, Murray says “Don’t rush to label passive, spacey behavior as passive‐resistance. Often, children with anxiety mildly ‘zone out’ in situations that they perceive to be overwhelming. Encouragement, redirection and prescribing ‘no fail’ tasks can all help to refocus the child to their environment.”
For children who develop physical symptoms that may be triggered by anxiety, the AAP recommends that parents engage in gentle and sympathetic conversations to try to determine if there is a specific cause for the concern, such as bullying orabuse. If so, parents are advised to contact the school administration to ensure a safe, inclusive environment for their child.