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  • Michael Philp

Back to school anxiety

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash-Grove Psychology-Anxiety-Back to School

If your child is like my youngest daughter, they are absolutely dreading the Officeworks back to school advert, as it starts to signal the end of school holidays. But for some children, the return to school is more upsetting than just the end of holidays and freedom. The end of school holidays and returning to school can bring up a lot of anxiety for some children. Anxiety, by definition, is a fear of unknown future events. Which is why the thought of returning to school can be upsetting for some children - it's filled with many unknowns. New teachers, new classmates, new classroom, new routines, and so on, there are many changes that we as parents often take for granted. Then there are other 'firsts' - first day of school for pre-primary or high school, or first day at a new school, or first day without an older brother or sister at the school.

Now, just because it's the first day of school doesn't automatically mean that your child will be anxious. Some children are naturally curious or stimuli-seeking and like new adventures. They will likely be nervous but willing to explore their new surroundings. Other children, however, do not cope as well with change. They like predictability and sameness, and they are much less excited about facing all these unpredictable events. These characteristics are known as the child's temperament, and they are a fairly stable characteristic of your child from birth. Children who as infants and toddlers were 'slow to warm-up' to new people or environments, are more likely to apprehensive about their first day back at school than their 'stimuli-seeking' counterparts, who enjoy finding out how things work and meeting new people.

How to help your child return to school

So where does your child fit in regards to their temperament? How are they feeling about returning to school? Are they cringing at the Officeworks ad because it signals the end of catching up with friends (like my daughter) or are they cringing because it signals the start of meeting lots of new people? If you know you have a child who is slow to warm-up, then you might want to start prepping them for returning to school a few days earlier. Regardless of temperament, all children like and respond well to predictability. So in the lead up to returning to school, it's time to get to the bedtime routine back on track, getting them up in time and dressed for the day as they would on the first day of school.

Other tips include:

- talking about school, who is in your child's class, and their new teacher (if you know the teacher's name and who is in the class already) a few days before school. Frame it in a positive "it's going to be exciting to see Jack again, I wonder if you will get to sit next to him" or "I wonder what your new teacher will be like? Maybe she likes to tell jokes or play games".

- if you live nearby the school, do a few incidental drive-bys and comment "see you soon school". Again, add in a few positives such as being able to play in the playground with friends.

- talk through the routine at school - play dumb and ask your child to tell you what the routine is. Ask silly questions so your child has to correct you. They will develop a sense of mastery and also reassurance that they know what the routine is and that they can cope.

For first timers

The first day of school can be very daunting. Many schools nowadays have become aware of this and in the lead-up have made efforts to connect with the children prior to going to school - such as a letter with a photo of the teacher, and even meeting the teacher the year before. Teachers will also help the students to integrate into school and for the parents to feel comfortable leaving. But you can still help your child by talking about going to school, reading stories about first day at school, and what they can expect. As mentioned, children like predictability and routine, so you can help your child understand what they will be doing and when. For example, you can make a visual calendar that shows when they will be going to school, or what they will be doing on each day eg sport on Tuesday or Library on Thursday. On the first day help your child to settle in and introduce them to the teacher. Most children are nervous about meeting adults for the first time and they need adults to help them learn the skills of introducing themselves. Show your child the room and engage in an activity. When it is time to leave, leave promptly. You'll be surprised at how quickly children cope once you've left. Ask yourself - who is more nervous, my child or me? It's normal for parents to feel apprehensive on the first day of school as well.

We got through the first day, but my child remains anxious

For some children, however, each day at school drop off is like groundhog day, and their anxiety might not be diminishing despite several weeks of school. In some cases, children may start to refuse to attend school or experience a lot of illnesses. It can be really difficult as a parent to figure out what exactly is going on for your child, as it likely she won't be able to express the exact issue. If you have a feeling it might be anxiety related, you could try naming it - "are you feeling nervous about meeting new people at school?" or trying a bit more casual "who did you play with today" to gauge what how your child is coping. That might be able to open up opportunities to problem solve strategies to cope together. For example, many school now have a 'friends' seat, where children can sit if they don't have anyone to play with, and this gives a signal to other children to ask them to join. This is helpful for shy children, however, I would also encourage your child to practise asking to join in. If the problem continues or worsens, you may want to consider more professional intervention, such as the school chaplain or psychologist.

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