I was always a goody two shoes growing up- I loved having a perfect attendance record, I strived to be the teacher’s helper, and I always turned in assignments on time. You would think that meant I loved school, right? Wrong! I was just honing my people-pleaser skills from an early age. While I did enjoy learning, I actually had a lot of anxiety about going to school, especially around major transition times. The start of a new school year, new teachers, exams, big projects, you name it. Sunday nights were usually the worst- I remember my stomach churning and falling asleep seemed impossible. Back then I didn’t have a name for it, I just knew that when my tummy hurt, it meant something stressful was going on at school that week.
Now I am in a position professionally where I can help kiddos who are going through similar struggles, and as another school year begins, I find myself commiserating with some of my patients. While some kids are thrilled about back to school shopping, new outfits and shiny pens and pencils, others are secretly dreading all the unknowns a new school year brings.
Here are some suggestions on how to help your child feel less anxious and more excited about the start of a new school year:
1) Acknowledge their worry: Many kids, especially younger ones, don’t have words yet for their feelings. All they know is that they don’t want to go to school or that their stomach or head hurts. Try saying something like, “I can see that you are worried about school starting. I can understand why a new school/teacher/friends could have you feeling a bit nervous.” Helping your child identify their feelings and realize it’s normal to feel that way can be very encouraging.
2) Explore the unknowns: Usually the biggest worry for kids is not knowing what to expect. To make the unknown less scary, expose your child to the new environment before school starts, so they have a mental picture of what it’s going to be like. This could include visiting a new school, seeing the new classroom, meeting with their new teacher, etc. If you know which kids are going to be in their class, try to arrange a small playdate the week before so your kids can get to know each other a little bit.
3) Provide a transitional object: For younger kids, having a piece of home to bring to school can help reassure them even when you aren’t there during the day. This doesn’t have to be a blanket or teddy, but rather something smaller and less noticeable, like a special watch or bracelet that reminds them of you or a note or picture they can keep in their pocket.
4) Include them in the back to school shopping: Letting your child pick out new clothes and supplies will help them feel more invested in school starting and give them something to feel excited about. ie, I can’t wait to eat lunch out of my new superhero lunchbox!
5) Plan the first day in advance: Make an effort to include your child in planning how the first day will go. This means letting them pick out (or buy!) the outfit of their choice and laying it out ahead of time, planning their favorite breakfast, knowing what time they have to leave and who will be driving them to school. You could even practice the drop off a few days in advance, so your child is familiar with the route and the procedure.
6)Arrange for a fairly busy day before school starts: Distraction does wonders for anxiety. So the day before school starts, try to plan a few activities that your child enjoys to keep them busy. This will also help them sleep better that night, too.
7) Organize something fun for the end of that first week: Kids often respond well to positive rewards and incentives. Plan a fun day trip or event with family or friends, and include your child in the preparation. This way, regardless of how the first few days of school goes, they know they have something to look forward to.
8) And last of all, relax. Our kids feed off of us and our own levels of anxiety. If you seem stressed, they may sense that, which can add to their own worry. Work together to focus on the positives of the new school year, and you guys will have a great first week! Good luck, everyone!