Back-to-school fears and anxiety can occur at any age, especially when children are transitioning to a new school or new school building. Help your child cope with his or her fears with a variety of simple strategies.
1. Encourage your child to talk about his feelings in order to gauge whether or not he fears going to school.
You might begin by saying: What are you looking forward to about this school year? If he expresses nervousness or anxiety, let him know that some anxiety is normal—nearly everyone feels it.
Tell him that many other kids feel the same way he does, even if they don’t discuss it. Also, share your own feelings about back-to-school time when you were a child, discussing both positive and less-than-positive aspects of your feelings at the time.
Don’t offer empty reassurance or minimize your child’s fears. Play detective. What’s bothering him? Is he afraid his teacher won’t like him? Is she fearful she won’t have any friends or fit in? Is he nervous about gym class, math, or reading? Help your child develop a plan for coping with his fears and give genuine praise when he makes an effort.
2. Schedule a school-supply shopping trip and allow your child to pick the backpack, notebooks, shoes, and other items they like. Most children want to “fit in”, so if the item isn’t harmful or budget-busting, get them the clothing and supplies that help them feel more confident.
This isn’t necessarily the time to teach your child that it’s the inside of a person that counts—that important lesson must be taught over time, and is most effective when taught by example.
3. Do a walk-through of the school. Today, some schools will allow scheduled walk-throughs, especially for new students. Together, find your child’s classroom or classrooms, take pictures on your cell phone, draw maps, and write some simple directions. If his locker has been assigned, find it and try locking and unlocking it a few times.
One visit may not be enough for fearful children, see if you can schedule a few visits. If possible, for younger children, drive, ride or walk the route to school so your child can become very familiar with the trip there. Narrate the landmarks along the way, so your child can become familiar with the route.
4. If possible, meet the principal and teacher before school begins. Orientation day might feel too hectic for some students, see if you can set up a brief (five minute) meeting with just you, your child, and their teacher and principal.
5. Now is a good time to teach your child some relaxing techniques. Show them easy ones they can do, unnoticed by others, in a classroom setting. For example, breathe in deeply through the nose (some children find the mouth easier) for the count of four, hold for two, and breathe out through the mouth for the count of six.
6. Another easy relaxation technique suitable for children is simplified progressive muscle relaxation. At home your child can begin by “scrunching up” her face muscles, holding for a second or two, then releasing them. She can move onto her shoulders (scrunch and release), fists, stomach, legs, feet. At school, she can easily scrunch and release her feet and toes (no one will notice).
Another variation is pressing each finger to the thumb, in order, beginning with the pinky, first on one hand, then the other. After two or three times, she should feel calmer and more focused.
7. Schedule an after-school date with your child once or twice the first week. Allow him to choose the venue such as a favorite park or pizza place. Encourage him to talk about school, but keep it low-key and no pressure.
8. The traditional note-in-the-lunchbox can be a comfort. Just keep the note light, include a favorite joke or two, and create an after-school coupon for your child to use, good for an ice cream, a cuddle, a trip to the park or whatever she enjoys.
9. If your child is fearful of more challenging classes or homework, let her know that you will be available to help her. Just knowing that her mom or dad will be there at homework time, can be a huge relief for a child.
10. Start to get into the back-to-school bedtime and breakfast routine as soon as possible before school starts.
11. Have your child help you plan her lunches for the first week of school. Take her shopping and allow her to choose items she likes.
12. If your child already has a friend at his new school, arrange for him to carpool or ride the bus with his friend for the first week or two (or more, if possible.) Investigate your child’s recess times and connect with other mothers whose children have recess the same time. Making introductions or play dates before school begins can be helpful, and a familiar face is usually a welcome site to an anxious child.