Meeting new teachers, worrying about where to sit at lunch, and wondering if they have classes with friends are common sources of anxiety for students of all ages, all the way from pre-school to high school.
Dr. Susan Baer recommends parents plan ahead and gradually expose kids to their environment and new schedule.
“Children and youth can build up a lot of stress and anxiety about having to get back into a routine and what to expect when the new school year begins,” said Dr. Susan Baer, the psychiatrist with the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at BC Children’s Hospital. “These feelings are normal, and there are steps parents can take now to help ease the transition from summer break to the new school year.”
- Get into a routine one to two weeks before school starts: plan nutritious meals and snacks as well as morning/bedtime habits
- Talk to your child about what may be worrying them: try role-playing through situations they may face at school
- Plan for transitions, including getting to school and returning to school after vacations
- Throughout the school year, encourage your child to share his or her fears by setting up a regular time to talk
- Help your child develop healthy coping and problem-solving skills
- Be mindful of your own behaviour—model confidence and comfort when your child is anxious
- Focus on the positive and celebrate small accomplishments
Lana Matheson, mother of four children aged 5 through 13, works with her husband and children on strategies to ease natural feelings of stress and anxiety, and focuses on the positive aspects of heading back to school.
“To help our kids prepare for the new school year, we do a lot of dry runs. We talk a lot about what they can expect and the things that we know,” said Lana. “We go to the school and check it out together, get organized with supplies and help them in every way so they can feel control over the unexpected.”
Lana’s eldest son Nicholas, who’s heading into grade six, focuses on the positive aspects of the new school year to put anxieties at bay.
“It’s just remembering that when you have anxiety or trouble starting the new school year, you’re mostly focusing on the bad things, you’ve got to focus on the positives. You’ve got to think about what’s good about this school year.”
Nicholas also shared some of the things he looks forward to when starting a new year in a new grade.
“Usually there are different things you can do with a new grade. You might be able to join small teams in your school. It’s just a matter of more stuff to do, but you get to do a lot more fun stuff. It’s also a lot of fun to get to know more people.”
While it’s normal for children to experience anxiety during the beginning of the school year, if your child is experiencing prolonged symptoms of anxiety, Dr. Baer recommends parents and caregivers seek additional help from your community care provider.
“Parents should seek more help with the back-to-school transition if the child is showing symptoms of anxiety over a prolonged period of time. Some examples include not sleeping well several nights in a row, having significant difficulty separating from their care provider for more than two weeks or having frequent temper tantrums the night before or morning of school days.”
- Frequent attempts to remain at home or with a caregiver
- Refuses to attend school on certain days (field trips)
- Refuses to eat in public
- Refuses to use public bathrooms
- Worries constantly
- Continually seeks comfort and reassurance
- Shows extreme shyness, avoiding social situations or events
- Raises physical complaints with no medical explanation (stomach aches, headaches, difficulty catching his or her breath)
- Throws tantrums, cries or screams excessively
- Begins to act in a way that is ‘out of character’, if a sudden and unexpected behavior change is observed