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How to Help Kids with Back-to-School Anxiety

By Pam Dewey • anxiety, kids and anxiety, school anxiety, kids school anxiety, children and anxiety, teens and anxiety, helping kids with anxiety, anxiety disorders, coping with anxiety, dealing with pandemic anxiety, managing anxiety • August 18, 2022

Back to school is a time of anticipation, excitement and, for some kids, anxiety. While kids may be looking forward to seeing their friends, they might also be worried about starting a new school, meeting their teacher or, for younger kids, being apart from their families. It’s a time of change and firsts, and transitions can be hard for kids.

Here are a few ideas to help ease kids’ back-to-school anxiety and make this time of year more about excitement and less about fear.

Show and encourage excitement about school

STEAM Powered Family states, “Children, especially younger ones, base their feelings on the emotions of those around them. If they see parents/guardians being nervous about the school year, they will be nervous as well.” But if you express excitement about school, your child will be more likely to get excited about attending school. Another way to help get your child excited is by having them pick out their school supplies or a new outfit for the first day.

Listen to their concerns

If your child is nervous about returning to school, listen to what they’re worried about. Perhaps they’re concerned about starting middle school, their new teacher or maybe their best friend moved away. Regardless, their concerns are valid, and you shouldn’t dismiss their feelings by telling them not to worry. Instead, listen to what they have to say. They may welcome advice about handling the situation, or maybe they just want you to listen.

Get back on a schedule

During the summer, most kids luxuriate in sleeping late and staying up past bedtime. Getting back into a school schedule can be a shock to their system. To ease the transition, try to get them back into a routine a week or two before school starts.  According to STEAM Powered Family, “Practice going to bed at an earlier time and waking up at the required time for school. Being well rested will help to reduce upset feelings that may arise during drop off.” It also helps their bodies adjust to the new routine.

Work on their independence

Your child could also be anxious because they don’t know how to tie their shoes or are worried about making friends. To help them feel prepared, work on skills like tying their shoes, zipping up their coat or packing their backpack for the next day. You can also help your child practice social skills by role-playing with them. They can practice introducing themselves and asking other kids about a favorite video game, toy or movie. Having a go-to ice breaker question can help your child feel more confident.

Visit their school

Most schools offer some kind of orientation before school starts. That can mean going to their classroom and meeting their teacher. You may also want to show your child the location of the bathroom and lunchroom. However, if the school isn’t open to students before classes start, you can drive them to the school, show them where you’ll drop them off and practice that part of your routine. The more your child knows what to expect, the less they’ll have to worry about.

Let a staff member know about anxiety

Teachers understand that transitions can be hard for kids. Let your child’s teacher know they are anxious about school, so you can work together to support them. You could also talk to a school counselor, nurse or teacher’s aide. This helps school staff watch for signs of anxiety or discomfort in your child.

Praise good behavior

If on the first day of school, your child cries or throws a fit, remember that transitions are difficult, especially for kids. It’s understandable they were upset. But rather than dwelling on this negative behavior, praise your child when they act appropriately. The Child Mind Institute writes, “You want to give specific praise for brave behavior. For example, remind them you will be back to get them and tell them things like, ‘Great job coming to preschool today. When I pick you up I hope you’ll tell me something fun you did.’” By focusing on their good behavior, you’re reinforcing this behavior and encouraging your child’s confidence.

Talk to a doctor or therapist

However, sometimes kids’ anxiety about school persists. It can even manifest as physical symptoms. The Child Mind Institute states, “Anxiety about school sometimes takes the form of headaches and stomachaches in the morning that kids say make them too sick to go to school.” If your child has consistent stomachaches or headaches, take them to their doctor. Your child may have a medical issue or anxiety problem that needs treatment.  

Your child could also be struggling with something else, like dyslexia, bullying or another mental health issue that makes attending school particularly upsetting. Again, talk to your child about what’s happening at school. They may also benefit from talking to a counselor or therapist.

Being anxious about going back to school is perfectly normal. You can help your child by encouraging excitement about school, listening to their concerns, resuming a schedule, practicing independence skills, visiting their school, talking to staff, praising good behavior and reaching out to their doctor if their anxiety is coupled with physical symptoms.