As a child psychologist, I understand that the start of a new school year, term or even week can be a stressful and anxiety-provoking time for both parents and children. Back to school anxiety can have a significant impact on both children and parents.
Is this the case for you?
After a period of relaxation and fun, it’s natural for kids to feel uneasy about returning to the structure and routine of the classroom.
As parents, it can be challenging to see our children struggling with back-to-school anxiety, especially when we want them to feel confident and excited about learning.
In this article, I’ll share some tips and strategies to help you and your child navigate the transition back to school with ease and confidence.
Recognising Back to School Anxiety in Your Child
Back-to-school anxiety can manifest in various ways depending on the age of the child, including:
- Physical symptoms like tummy aches, headaches, and fatigue
- Changes in appetite and sleep patterns.
- Increased irritability and anger.
- Difficulty concentrating and restlessness.
- Avoiding social situations or withdrawing from everyday life.
- Heightened emotional reactions, such as crying or temper tantrums.
- Regression in behaviors, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.
- Excessive worrying about school-related issues, such as grades or social interactions.
Do you recognise any of these signs of anxiety in your child?
By spotting and addressing high back-to-school anxiety levels early on, you can help your child feel more confident and prepared for the challenges ahead.
Strategies for Back to School Anxiety
1. Create an Open and Supportive Environment
Here are some ways you can create an open and supportive environment for your child with back to school anxiety:
- Validate and acknowledge their feelings regularly.
- Be empathetic and understanding.
- Focus on being a good listener.
- Model healthy coping strategies. For example, you can talk about times when you have felt anxious, and how you dealt with these.
- Celebrate your child’s successes, no matter how small.
- Help them problem-solve.
- Approach the problem with a “we are a team and we will solve this together” mentality.
- Be patient and consistent in your support.
- Stay calm.
2. Make Advance Planning a Priority
The brain craves predictability. It likes to know what to expect.
If your child is nervous about going back to school, the brain will be on the lookout for danger.
Our brains are built for survival.
They keep us safe.
Your child is scared about school, and this triggers the release of chemicals which will get the body ready to fight or run (fight or flight), in order to stay alive.
The brain’s primitive mechanism doesn’t realise that your child is not going to die at school. It feels that way to your child, so the survival response will kick in.
The more predictable routines you can put in, the more your child (and their brain!) will feel in control of the situation. This means that fewer stress chemicals will be released.
When your child is less stressed, you will also be less stressed. It’s a win-win.
Introduce new routines gradually to help them adjust to the change in schedule, such as waking up earlier or doing homework at specific times.
Familiarize your child with any changes such as a new teacher, new timetable or new classroom environment in advance, whether through a school tour or pictures of the space.
Talk about any changes as often as possible, to allow your child’s brain to process and adjust to them.
Make sure your child has all the school supplies they need well in advance.
By planning ahead, you can help your child feel more prepared and in control, reducing their anxiety as they head back to school.
Back to School Anxiety: The Power of Visual Planning
The brain processes images with greater ease than verbal instructions or text.
A visual planner uses images (sometimes combined with words) to take pressure off our memory, increase predictability and reduce stress.
A visual planner is a simple, individualised list helping you and your child to know exactly what to do next. The simpler you can keep your list, the better.
The Process of Visual Planning
I suggest that you spend 30 minutes with your child and create two planners.
- Evening prep.
- Morning planner.
Make the planners as attractive as you can. Put them up in prominent places such as on the fridge or by your child’s desk. Apply the planner consistently for two weeks, then tweak as necessary.
Using these planners consistently will help you turn mornings from a chaotic time-bomb into a smooth, well-oiled machine!
Here is an example of an evening planner. It removes the burden of trying to remember what prep to do each night.
Here is an example of a morning planner. Remember, keep it simple!
You can use visual planners with children of any age from 4-18. Contrary to popular belief, visual planners are not just for autistic children. They work for everyone!
3. Build Strong Communication Between Parents and School to Minimize Back to School Anxiety
Effective communication between parents and the school is one of the most important factors for children experiencing back-to-school anxiety.
By informing teachers and administrators about your child’s specific needs and anxiety triggers, you can work together with the school to develop a plan. This might include modifications to the classroom environment or extra support from school counselors or mental health professionals.
Regular check-ins between a child’s teacher or pastoral care staff and your child can help your child feel safe and supported at school.
The adult and child can problem-solve worries or issues as they arise, preventing them from escalating into full-on anxiety triggers.
When parents and the school work together to support a child, they create a cohesive and consistent support system that can help the child feel more secure and confident in their ability to manage their anxiety.
Flexibility is they key area to look out for in your child’s school.
When accommodations and modifications are made made to meet a child’s individual needs, it reduces their stress. Ultimately this leads to both academic success and improved emotional well-being.
4. Back to School Anxiety: Plan the First Day of School
Navigating the first day back to school can be challenging for children suffering from back-to-school anxiety.
To help your child feel more prepared, plan out what will happen that morning, from breakfast to arriving at school.
Talk through each step in detail to help them visualize the experience and feel more comfortable with the process.
Offer plenty of reassurance and encouragement, reminding them that they are not alone and that you are there to support them every step of the way.
It’s also helpful to plan what will happen at the end of the day, such as a fun activity or special snack to look forward to.
5. Understand and Manage Separation Anxiety
Does your child struggle to go into school because they don’t want to leave you?
I have written a whole article about separation anxiety at school drop-off, full of helpful information and strategies for parents of younger children. For older children and teens my colleague Hayley Vaughan Smith’s article on separation anxiety in teens is an essential read.
It’s important to take separation seriously as it can escalate to school refusal, and once this happens it becomes much more difficult for a child to return to school full time.
Separation anxiety is a common experience for children going back to school.
Encourage your child to express their emotions and talk through their fears, validating their concerns and offering practical solutions where possible.
Establishing a consistent goodbye routine can also help, such as a special hug or kiss before they head off to school. Remind them of fun activities they can look forward to after school or during the weekend as a way of providing a positive distraction.
By taking these steps, you can help your child feel more secure and confident as they navigate the transition back to school.
6. Support Social Interactions
Worries about social interactions and friendships can contribute significantly to back-to-school anxiety. Children’s social development is a crucial aspect of their academic and emotional growth, and when they experience difficulties in this area, it can trigger feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem.
Teachers can play a significant role in supporting social development by creating a safe and inclusive environment. Hopefully your child’s school will listen to your child’s individual needs and take active steps to support them.
For example, some children have a stressful time at break and lunch because these unstructured social situations make them feel overwhelmed. Your child’s school may suggest strategies such as:
- Adult-led environments at break times (e.g. a club or structured activity) rather than free/unsupervised play.
- Helping your child identify a buddy they can pair up with at break times.
- Including your child in a social skills group to build their confidence.
As a parent, you may need to “scaffold” your child’s development if this is an area they struggle with. For example, plan play dates and try new clubs. Role-playing social scenarios at home can also help children develop the skills they need to navigate challenging situations, such as introducing themselves to new classmates or resolving conflicts.
7. Manage Energy Levels
Managing energy levels is an important aspect of helping a child cope with back-to-school anxiety.
While engaging in extracurricular activities can be a helpful distraction and boost confidence, it’s essential that you spot when your child needs downtime.
When a child is experiencing stress and anxiety, it’s normal for them to tire easily, and pushing them to do too much can have negative consequences for their mental health.
Encouraging relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or yoga can be a helpful way to calm their nervous system and help their body and mind feel calm. Make sure you allow plenty of downtime at home, such as reading or spending time with family. This will help your child recharge and manage their energy levels.
By balancing activities and downtime, you can help your child feel more in control of their emotions and better equipped to handle the challenges of a new school year.
8. Extra Nurture and Support For Your Child
A child experiencing back-to-school anxiety needs extra nurture and support at home to help them feel safe. This might include:
- Extra cuddles or affection.
- Reducing demands on your child temporarily (e.g. chores).
- Focusing on a consistent routine.
- Encouraging relaxation techniques like deep breaths.
- Limiting exposure to stressful or anxiety-provoking situations.
- Making sure you have healthy meals and snacks on hand to support your child’s physical and emotional well-being
- Engaging in calming activities together like reading, coloring, or taking walks.
At school, extra nurture and support might involve:
- Providing a quiet space for your child to take breaks when needed.
- Offering them extra one-on-one time with a teacher or counselor, or
- Creating a flexible schedule that allows them to adjust to the new routine gradually.
The length of time a child may need this extra nurture and support can vary depending on their age, individual needs and situation. It’s important that this support continues until they feel safe and secure at school.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Back to School Anxiety For Parents
When a child is anxious about going to school, it’s natural for parents to experience their own feelings of anxiety. Remember that anxiety is normal and temporary, and that it’s okay to ask for help if you need it.
Make sure you ring-fence some time for yourself to take care of your own needs. Think about how you can get enough sleep, exercise and relaxation time.
Seek support from other parents or family members if you can. You will be surprised at how many other parents experience similar feelings.
Focus on the positive aspects of the situation and encourage your child to do the same.
Although it can be horrible having to lave a crying child at the school gates or watch your child’s anxiety hold them back, they may be building resilience.
For example, if anxious kids manage to navigate the school day successfully, it can help them to see that they can face scary situations and overcome their fears.
This isn’t always the case, and if your child is flooded with anxious feelings throughout the school day, you will need to work with the child’s school to directly address these anxiety triggers.
Back to School Stress For Parents
Anxiety and stress often go hand in hand. It’s important to recognise this, and yet acknowledge the differences too.
Stress is usually a response to a specific situation, like the first day of school. It can feel like a heavy pressure in the body (often in the chest or torso area). I often feel overwhelmed at the same time as feeling stressed – there’s a close link between the two.
It often eases once the situation has passed. For parents, stress can arise from organizing schedules, buying supplies, or adjusting to new routines among many other things. It’s a normal part of the transition, but shouldn’t be ignored because it can trigger anxiety.
In other words, if your stress levels are high, you are more likely to feel acute anxiety about your child going back to school. This in turn means you will not be as well regulated as you need to be, to support your child in the best way.
Managing back to school stress is crucial for us as parents. First, planning ahead can make a world of difference. Create a checklist for supplies and schedules to avoid last-minute scrambles.
Second, make sure you plan in down time so you can manage your stress levels. For example, take a day off work the day before school starts if you can, or plan a relaxing evening of pampering or a nice meal on the evening of the first day.
Bonus Strategy: What Are the Barriers to a Stress-Free School Day?
Over the years of being a child psychologist I have found it invaluable to use a strategy where we identify the barriers to a child feeling relaxed and happy at school. It’s so helpful to break it down.
For example, an anxious child might sit down with their parents and teachers and come up with a list of six barriers to thriving at school. This will be different for every child.
It might include: struggling to know how to navigate group work or team sports, the feel of the sports kit on their skin, getting on the crowded school bus or the tone of voice used by a particular teacher.
Next, they would look at how each of these barriers can be overcome. For example, if a child perceives a particular teacher’s tone of voice as angry or aggressive, making the teacher aware of this can be helpful.
It might also be beneficial for this teacher to speak to the child and explain that they are not angry or upset with the child.
What to Do If You Need Further Support
If your child’s back to school anxiety escalates to a level where their quality of life or attendance at school is affected, you will need professional medical advice.
In the first instance ask your family doctor or healthcare provider to refer your child to a local service offering evidence-based treatment.
In the UK, sadly many NHS services are overwhelmed at the moment and your child may not be accepted for therapeutic support unless there anxiety is severe. If your child cannot be seen in the NHS or the waiting list is long, the good news is there are other options.
You could also seek support from an independent clinical psychologist through ACHiPPP, the Association for Child Psychologists in Private Practice.
Many schools offer direct anxiety support through a school psychologist or counsellor. Make an appointment to discuss this directly with the school.
My online course, Outsmart Anxiety, will help you learn effective strategies to help your child successfully deal with their symptoms and start flourishing.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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