Beginning or returning to school brings a gamut of emotions: excitement, fear, anticipation, anxiety… and I can only imagine how much worse it must be for a child!
Whether your child is beginning school for the first time or returning to another year of school, they may be experiencing anxiety over the prospect. And by ‘anxiety’ I’m talking about general worry and fear, not necessarily clinical anxiety although a number of these symptoms and strategies can apply to both.
Some common signs to indicate anxiety include:
~ Selective mutism (refusing to speak in some situations but not others)
~ Asking the same questions repeatedly (eg. Will I make friends? What if…?)
~ Emotional detachment
~ Refusal to discuss school
~ Pacing, fidgeting, crying, clinging, shaking
~ Refusal to attend
~ Repetitive complaints of sickness
So what can cause or worsen anxiety in children?
Previous experiences can cause a child to worry that something similar could happen again.
Fear of the unknown, having no friends, being bullied or laughed at are all reasons for anxiety.
Children often model their parent's responses to stressful situations including their coping or avoidance mechanisms.
A parent’s reactions to their child’s anxiety can, in fact, exacerbate it through excessive reassurance or over-protectiveness.
1 in 10 children suffer from some form of clinical anxiety.
Helpful strategies for general anxiety include:
~ Validate your child’s feelings and the fact that these worries are very real to them
~ Encourage and practice positive self talk ('I can be brave')
~ Progressive muscle relaxation
~ Deep breathing
~ Model being brave
~ Problem solve – ‘If (this) happens, what could you do or who could you go to?’
~ Use humor to alleviate tension
~ Keep your child active with plenty of exercise
Strategies for first day jitters:
~ Arrange to catch up with other school children in the weeks leading up to the start of school
~ Establish or maintain a daily routine in the weeks prior to school beginning, including exercise, structured meal times, scheduled quiet time and a set bedtime to prioritise sleep.
~ Focus on the positive by encouraging your child to list three things they are excited about for the first day of school.
~ Borrow some books from the library about starting school.
~ Have your child help plan, shop for and prepare lunches for the first week.
~ Ask the school if you can drop in the week before school starts to give your child a tour or introduce them to the teacher if possible.
~ Role play ways to make friends and resolve conflict.
~ Have your child help to pack their school bag the night before school starts. Include a special comfort toy to keep in their bag.
~ Leave a little note in your child’s lunch box to reassure them.
~ Arrive in plenty of time to minimize stress for both you and your child, but not too early that you find yourselves hanging around allowing your child’s anxiety to grow.
~ Walk your child to their classroom, help to settle them in and introduce to the teacher.
~Link your child up with a friend or a friendly face and give them an activity to keep busy (eg. colouring in).
~ Divert their attention elsewhere when possible.
~ If possible, try to warn the teacher that your child has separation anxiety and you may need their help when it comes time for you to leave.
~ Plan a special dinner at the end of the first week to celebrate your child’s bravery and discuss all the things they enjoyed during their first week back at school.
~ Listen attentively to everything your child says. Give praise for their confidence and empathy for their fears, but always focus on the positive.
~ If you determine that a particular fear is real rather than perceived, act on it quickly by discussing the issue with the teacher and school administration.
Discuss with your child what the first morning of school will involve when you drop them off. Explain that you will return at the end of the school day to pick them up. Show younger children what that time looks like on the clock so they can keep track throughout the day.
When the bell goes and the teacher calls the class to attention, give your child a reassuring hug and kiss before promptly leaving. If your child will not let go of you, as hard as it is to do, transfer them to the teacher and leave after one final reassurance and goodbye. In time, they will settle but this is more difficult if you are nearby. Resist the urge to stay outside and watch through the window or drop back for a peek in.
No matter what behavior your child exhibits, remain calm and confident.
If anxiety continues for months on end and seems to be worsening, it may be helpful to ask your child’s teacher what they have observed and experienced in the classroom. If you are concerned you may need to see your Doctor to discuss it, particularly if you notice that it is consistently and negatively affecting your child.
Let’s enjoy the return to school and help to instill confidence and anticipation in our kids! Here’s to the start of a (hopefully stress-free) new school year!