Starting back at school can be a stressful time of year for all of the family, especially after a significant amount of time away for holidays. Many children and teenagers can become anxious about the transition into a new year and can often start to become increasingly clingy, complain of having pains in the tummy, headaches, become easily upset, withdrawn and irritable and start to talk about not wanting to go to school.
Research suggests that it is important that parents ensure that their child does attend school, as avoidance of school is said to only increase and reinforce a child's worries , making it increasingly difficult for them to attend in the long term.
Being away from school not only reduces the child's social interaction with peers and ability to increase their skills, it arguably limits the child's ability to gather evidence that challenges their fears about school.
Children's school worries are often centered around the unknown, the 'what if', some examples are:
'what if I don't like my new teacher?', 'how will I know where my classroom is?', 'what if I don't know anyone there?', 'who will I sit with at lunch', 'what if I miss the bus?', 'what if I cant do the school work'.
If your child is anxious about school, it can helpful to start to prepare for the return to school a week or two* before school starts. Some suggestions are as follows:
A week before school starts:-
- Start getting into the school routine by waking up early, eating breakfast and going to bed at regular times, explaining to your child(ren) that the whole family needs to adjust to the new schedule
- Create a list of items needed to get for school such as pencil case etc and go on a shopping trip together.
- Ask your child to help you plan the first weeks lunches
- Teach and practice coping skills by role modelling behaviours, when you see they are becoming anxious, engage in breathing exercises together such as; taking three big breaths in and out or perhaps use one of these FREE breathing exercise.
- Respond to your child, by acknowledging their feeling AND setting the boundary such as: 'I can see that going to school is making you feel scared but you still have to go, tell me what you're worried about so that we can talk it through'
- Incorporate mindfulness/relaxation activities at night, to help calm and relax the body and brain (see my blog for more ideas).
- Help your child to develop skills to problem solve, what it is they could do for example; if they didn't know where their classroom was at school, they could ask another child or teacher on duty, problem solving can help children to feel more empowered and in control of their experiences.
A couple of days prior to school starting:
- Do the school run a few times, whether its walking, driving or taking the bus. For children who are taking the school bus, it may be helpful to draw a little map of the bus route, including how long it takes to get to school.
- Walk around the school grounds if you can, to familarise the child with the area.
- Have your child try on their school uniform, to get used to the way it feels, including hat/ties etc.
- The night before school, help your child to pack their school bag and set out their school uniform.
- Place a reassuring note in a child’s lunchbox, this can help ease separation anxiety (see my blog re: separation anxiety for more ideas)
The first day of school:
- Inform the school/teacher of your child's concerns, so that they are aware of this.
- Be mindful of your own feelings about sending your anxious child to school and be sure to keep these in check, take some deep breaths, to calm yourself or speak to another adult about your own concerns.
- Have your child go to school with a friend, or meet them at the school gate, for the first couple of days.
- Use positive reinforcement and be sure to praise and reward your child for brave behaviour
*TIP If your child is highly anxious, starting a routine 1-2 weeks out from school might be too much time, therefore adjusting the timeframe to suit your child's needs, such as 3-4 days prior to school may be more appropriate.
If you have significant concerns about your child anxiety and well-being, be sure to contact a health professional, who can provide them with additional support, during this time.
Refs: Anxiety BC (2007-2017) Helping your child cope with back to school anxiety; K.Young (2015) Dealing with School Anxiety.