Addressing Anxiety About Back-to-School

KSL TVââ?¬â??Studio 5

Whether it’s the first day of kindergarten, middle school, junior high or high school, many children feel anxious about their first big day. These are milestones in your child’s life, and how your child adapts may likely determine how he or she adjusts to other “firsts” throughout life.

The most common question I received centered on the “first-day jitters.” First-day jitters, mid-week jitters, and even mid-year jittersââ?¬â?where suddenly, out-of-the-blue, a child doesn’t want to go to school. Kids who are fearful with early transitions are also more likely to have harder transitions throughout their life cycle. Now, some children are inherently more flexible than others, they are more adaptable, and the “firsts” are just not that monumental for them. For other children, however, any change or transition is significantly disruptive, especially if they tend to have a more sensitive personality.

I received this e-mail from Aimee in Bountiful:

“My 6-year-old daughter is NOT excited about First Grade! I have always tried to make learning fun so I’m confused and concerned by her lack of interest. Help meââ?¬Â¦..her first day, hopefully, will be next week!”

And, Rachel in Orem sent this question:

“We moved into a new neighborhood this summer so EVERYTHING has changed. My kids will be going to a different school, with unfamiliar teachers, and a brand new peer group. No one’s excited, including meââ?¬Â¦..any hope for us?”

To Aimee and Rachel and all of the other families facing change, the most important thing they can do is to prepare that child for what’s ahead. The more positive experiences children can have within the change process, the better off they’ll be. And the more prepared your children are the better off they’ll be.

Meet the Teacher

Head to school with them and meet the teacher; if there isn’t a formal time for coming in as parents and students to meet the teacher before the school year begins, call ahead for your own time to sit down and visit for 10-minutes. What we learned from our interview with the Utah State Board of Education is that teachers who meet their students’ parents actually treat that child differently; they have a framework for which they see and relate to that child. So start early! Get to know your child’s teacher; ask them about their family and background, and offer your services to the teacher/classroom. Express gratitude ahead of time for that teacher being willing to play a key role in your child’s learning experience. And of course, on the first day, even the first week of school, mom or dad show up! Go in if that’s what your child needsââ?¬Â¦let them transition on their own.

Have a “School Day Trial”

I once worked with the mother of a very anxious 6-year-old who was so nervous about starting school. She didn’t like the fact that school would now be ALL DAY LONG! This little girl really just wanted to hang out at home with her mother and younger siblings; she was afraid to miss out on something. So, this very clever mother decided to teach her child what a typical school day would look like. A few weeks before school started, she woke her daughter up, fixed breakfast for everyone, loaded everyone up in the car and headed for school. She drove up to the school building and began to share with her daughter what types of things she could expect as she started her school day and all the exciting things that would be going on in that classroom. Then, this clever mother said, “let me show you the rest of us will be doing while you’re in school.” And, she then proceeded to run errand after errand, nearly no fun at all, and then drove home, put the baby down for a nap, and started the laundry, did the dishes, fed the kids a quick lunch of string cheese and carrot sticks, celery, and apple slices. I mean, BORING! She also would remind her daughter, “Now, at school you’d be having a choice of a hot ham sandwich, chicken nuggets, or’ (her daughter’s favorite), “chicken noodle soup!” Not to mention, she’d be eating lunch with some new friends. Before that, of course, she would have really worked up an appetite learning to read and playing on all that great playground equipment outside. Smart mother; this little girl realized that she’d be missing out by NOT going to school.

Increase Availability

It is also incredibly important to be there for our children, after school. No matter the age of the child, many kids will need extra support during this time, so parents, adjust your schedules accordingly. Transitions are emotionally challenging and we need to be sensitive to that fact.

If your child is an adolescent, peer group issues dominate their fears. Belonging is so important during these ages. Help facilitate friendships by encouraging a get-together with a few kids from class. One mother mentioned that her 5th grade son feels out-of-the-loop because he’s not athletic like the other boys in his class. Not everyone is athletic and those who are athletic aren’t JUST athletic. They have other interests, as well. Encourage your child to find a connection; teach your child to be interested in others and to improve his or her listening skills. Perhaps one classmate mentions the chess game they had with their dad last night – that’s a great inroad for setting up a chess game date at your house. Also, encourage that child to take an interest in his peers; ask them how the big game went; what they think of the coach; what position they’re playing, etc. We like people who like usââ?¬Â¦ skills are some of the most important things we learn in the school setting. These skills will always serve us well.

One more e-mail came in from John O., from SLC:

“My junior high student seems to be dreading this year more than usual. I’m not sure why and he won’t talk about it. Any clue on how to get a mouth-shut teenager to open up?”

To that question, I would suggest all parents make an extra effort to inquire and connect.

Inquire and Connect

Helping children deal with their anxieties often means helping them challenge their negative thinking. So many times children don’t really know what the problem is – until you ask enough questions. If your child is quiet, stay close. And remember that the best way to get someone to open up to you is for you to first open up to them! Share some of your own feelings from junior highââ?¬Â¦Ã¢â?¬Â¦.think hard about some of the fears, failures, and successes YOU had. Invite them to join you in playing catch, making a model airplane, or going for a hike. It’s often in the doing together that natural conversation flows the easiest.

If a couple of weeks pass, and your child still does not want to go to school, or out-of-the-blue, mid-year, your child suddenly doesn’t want to attend school anymore, you may want to seek some outside advice. When a child states that they hate school, refuse to go, or come home everyday with headaches or stomachaches, or if they’re having nightmares and not sleeping, then you need to be more assertive. Involve the teacher in your inquiry, visit with a school psychologist, mental health professional or pediatrician to rule-out if your child has an emotional problem or anxiety disorder that needs to be addressed. The worse thing we as parents and professionals could do would be to do nothing. Show up, listen, ask questions, take a concerted interest in your greatest investment: your precious child.