Strategies for managing back to school anxiety

Dr Terence Sheppard, Adelaide child psychologist and author of Positive Parenting: A Guide to Raising Psychologically Healthy Children, shares some useful tips to get children back in the routine and ready for another year of learning.

WORDS: Dr Terence Sheppard, Child Psychologist

These three words – back to school –inevitably arouse a range of emotions in both children and their parents. Children, particularly if they are facing their first day of ‘proper’ school or moving to a new one, may be anxious. Parents, however, distracted by the need to plan a whole new set of ‘drop off’ and ‘pick up’  arrangements, and possibly stressed by the extra strain on the household budget, may be unaware of how their kids are feeling.

Anxiety regarding change is normal and, in and of itself, is nothing to worry about. Parents, from their own experience, are aware that a large majority of children settle into school relatively quickly and begin to enjoy new friends and experiences. But kids don’t know this. Left to themselves they can experience needless, and sometimes excessive, anxiety about this next chapter of their lives. And if not addressed anxiety about school can broaden into more general fears about their capacity to cope with the future.

This time of the year is a great opportunity for you to help your children manage the back to school transition more smoothly and, at the same time, teach them how to approach change of any kind – and the anxiety they may associate with it – easily and comfortably.

What can parents do to help reduce ‘back to school anxiety’ for their kids?

The first thing is to establish and maintain regular and predictable routines. As we argue in ‘Positive Parenting’ routine, in the form of regular eating and sleeping schedules and agreed family rules, is critical for children to acquire the fundamental security they crave and a basic sense of trust in their world that they need to face the future with confidence. The research is clear: kids raised in disorganised, chaotic homes are significantly more prone to behavioural disorders such as ADHD and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

Set a routine and rules

Routine and rules (enforced when necessary with discipline) should be standard features of family life during most of the year. During school holidays it is common for meal times to become disorganised and bedtimes to become erratic, particularly when families are travelling. This is fine and can be fun provided it is temporary and does not become habitual so that it threatens family functioning and harmony.

Once Christmas and New Year are over and one or both parents are back at work family routines should be reestablished particularly as the new school year approaches. It cannot be overemphasised that structure and organisation at home provide children with the security they need for positive identity development and confidence to face their future (and not merely school) with optimism.

We have already mentioned regular bed times to promote healthy sleeping patterns but it is worth emphasising that growing children need 8 to 10 uninterrupted hours sleep per day to promote sound physical and psychological development (Australian Dept. of Health). Adjusting to a new school year becomes even harder when they are tired and unable to concentrate. Not only should kids have regular bed times but they should not go to bed with a phone or screen (or have a TV in their bedroom) which inevitably will disrupt their sleep.

(BTW some recent evidence suggests turning screens off at least an hour before bedtime increases children’s capacity to fall asleep quickly).

Encourage physical exercise

In addition to sleep, regular physical exercise is necessary for mental health and success at school. Exercise promotes concentration, lowers stress and improves academic performance. Parents should ensure it is a normal part of every child’s day both when they at school and during the holidays.

In the first term of each new school year teachers will cover basic concepts which kids must understand if they are to apply them successfully to skill development (letter and word recognition, for example, precede success in reading). If they are not prepared physically and psychologically for school  from ‘Day 1’ – if they don’t ‘hit the ground running’ – they will fail to acquire core principles they need as a foundation for future learning. As a consequence, they are more likely to struggle and to dislike school.

Assist kids to acquire emotional control

And finally, anxiety about starting or returning to school gives parents an opportunity to assist kids to acquire emotional control.  In the ‘Positive Parenting’ guide we discuss how emotions are created by the beliefs and language we use to talk and think about past and future events. Negative language and beliefs reinforce existing fears while their opposites create confidence and optimism.

If you hear your child saying, ‘I hate school, it’s going to be awful’, for example, you can gently intervene to acknowledge their fears but also to highlight the things they will enjoy – playing with friends, learning new things, going on excursions and so on. Agree that they may be a little nervous at first but emphasise that this will be temporary and that very soon they will love going to school every day.

Parents too may worry about how one or more of their children is going to cope. Once again this is normal but it is most important not communicate your anxiety thereby exacerbating any fears they may already have about ‘back to school’.

Be very careful not to reinforce negative beliefs about school they may have picked up from peers. Rather encourage them to apply positive language and beliefs to the future through your own example so that when the big day comes they are looking forward to it!

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