Helping to Ease Back to School Anxiety

by Liz Curran, Katz JCC Lifestyle & Wellness Coach

As August ends, thoughts of the school year come creeping back into my mind. Schedules, routines, homework, activities, the list goes on. Long gone will be the relaxed and flexible days of summer, dinners by the pool and days at the beach.

I try really hard to resist thoughts of school because my family and I are mentally still in vacation mode, trying to soak up our last few moments of summer fun. But when the letter from school came to announce my children’s teachers for this school year, my kids started thinking ahead about the first day, the new year and feelings of excitement that go with it. Then their thoughts were followed by the anxieties about what’s to come…

  • Who will be my new teacher?
  • Will my friends be in my class?
  • Will I get good grades?
  • Will I have a lot of homework?
  • Who will I play with at recess?
  • Will I get lost?
  • What if I miss the bus?

While these seem to be perfectly normal questions, they sometimes provoke some fears as well. Our kids begin to stress about the little things that going back to school represents. What may seem silly to us as adults, means everything to a kid who has to face heading back to the classroom. We need to remember that changes can trigger anxieties and bring up some fears in our children that we may not be able to relate to, or we may see as irrational.

Here are a few tips to help you and your family plan ahead to keep things calm and positive when looking forward to the new year:

Now is the time to…

  • Start practicing your typical school-day routine – wake up early, eat breakfast and especially head to bed at the normal “school-night” bedtimes.
  • For kids that don’t like to get up in the morning, start waking them up at the time they need to be up for school or set an alarm.
  • Arrange playdates with friends that will be in their new class. This can get them excited to see their buddies and look forward to seeing them when school starts again.
  • Sit together and plan out school lunches for the first week of school. Provide a space to talk about any anxieties they have focused around lunch time – how to buy their food, who they are going to sit with, etc…
  • Double check that they have all their school supplies and/or plan a shopping trip. Then take some time to pack the new supplies into backpacks so it’s ready for the first day.
  • If they are really nervous, teach and practice calming their nerves with an easy breathing technique. (Review 4-7-8 Breathing)

A couple of days before school…

  • Practice going into school a few times by walking, driving in or taking the bus route so your child is familiar with their surroundings. For bus riders, you can print out a map and highlight the route the bus will take and talk about how long the ride will be.
  • If possible, take a tour of the school, let your child see their new classroom, cafeteria, bathrooms, and maybe even meet their teacher. Spend some time playing on the school playground. Familiarity is extremely helpful here, it helps take the fear out of the unknown
  • Have your child pick out their favorite outfit to wear. Support them to pick out something to wear that will help them feel confident on the first day.
  • If your child is especially nervous about separating, let them pick a special object that reminds them of home that they can keep in their backpack during the school day.

On the First day…

  • Plan to meet a friend at school for your child to walk in to school with.
  • Place a little note of encouragement in their back pack or lunch box to let them know you are thinking of them.
  • At the end of the first day, ask them what they loved about their first day of school. This is something you can use to remind them if they start getting nervous again the next day.

If you’ve taken these steps to prepare your family for their new school year and they are still nervous, sit down with them to have a chat. You can validate their concerns by acknowledging that starting school can be hard but after some practice it will become easy and fun. Sometimes kids just want to talk about their fears without expecting you to fix them. Listening to them and talking them through any fears will help them feel more secure. By demonstrating your confidence that you know they can handle the situation, will help them to feel this way too.

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