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Helping children cope with school based anxiety

August 29, 2017

It’s that time of year again when families start to prepare their children for the beginning of the new school year. From kindergarten to high school, most children are happily anticipating meeting a new teacher, making friends, and undertaking new learning.  

But, for some students, school can create some fear or anxiety as they think about the uncertainty of the approaching new year. Children may become clingy, tantrums and meltdowns might increase, and stomach aches may appear that are not linked to a medical condition. Why does this happen for some students and not others?

Past experience can lead to some nervousness, but many children have the inherited trait of being cautious and worried in new situations. The brain often thinks that there’s some form of danger involved and may kick into the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This response is primarily about self-protection, so parents can do a lot of things to help children deal with worry about school. It may seem that the “tough approach” might be helpful, but in reality, it can actually make things worse.

Helping children to cope with the “school jitters” involves patience, conversation, preparation, and understanding. How can parents help children when they worry about school? Here are some tips that might alleviate some fears for your child as they begin the transition into a new year:

  • Talk to your child about what they might be worried about. Reassure your child that many students get nervous before the year begins. Focus on what he/she did well in the past; how she may have dealt with attending a new school, or made a new friend, or had an incredible teacher. Focus on those great memories!
  • You may want to visit the school before classes start. Most schools are open several days early as teachers and staff begin to prepare for classes. Tour the school, find the child’s classroom, and meet some of the staff. By spending a few minutes at the school, the child is able to envision what his first day will look like. For older students, you may want to get a class schedule and locate the room where each class is to be held. 
  • Establish routines now. Encourage an earlier bedtime routine and focus on getting up earlier in the morning. Quiet reading time can also be important as this initiates the need to build in some reading and study times. Put time limits on electronic devices. 
  • Look up the school’s website and read through this information together.
  • Have a calendar displayed in a prominent place in your home and begin to put in important dates and events. This assists your child is learning how to manage a day timer.
  • Read the school’s handbook with your child and discuss the expectations for dress code, homework, and other school guidelines.
  • Practice walking to school together. Connect with another neighbourhood child and walk to school or play on the school playground.
  • Encourage your child to ask for help if he or she gets “stuck,” which means speaking to adults, the school administration, or other children.
  • Encourage positive self-talk in your child. Even when kids are anxious or worried, they can use internal talk such as, “It’s okay to be scared,” or “I’ll get through this.” “Everyone has a bit of nervousness in this class.” “I was nervous last year, but it went away once I got to school.” 

If your child is experiencing some school-based anxiety, the above tips can help you to alleviate some of your child’s fears. This builds a foundation for creating courage and confidence in your child and will give children some lifelong tools for adapting to new situations.