Five tips to help children avoid back to school anxiety

The start of the school year fills kids with many different emotions.  For some children, going back to school can cause anxiety. Behavioral health providers at Carle have several tips for parents to help kids get back to school without fear.

Crystal Newman, PhD, psychologist at Carle, says there are several strategies for parents to help them get their child ready for the start of school and to help kids avoid fear and anxiety:

 Get organized prior to school.  “Have school supplies, clothes, and lunch ready ahead of time. This helps kids feel more ready and less worried the first day of school,” Dr. Newman advised.
• Establish a school schedule before the school year starts. “This includes set times for eating, sleeping and waking.  Help kids return to normal bedtime, gradually sending kids to bed a little bit earlier if you have to in order for them to get enough rest,” Newman added.
• Use pictures, calendars, and/or lists to help prepare children for their school days.  “Having a list of tasks or activities that will happen before, during, and after school can help children feel knowledgeable and able to regulate their emotion and behavior,” Newman said.
• Role play feared school scenarios.  “Role playing events that they are worried about allows children to practice the skills they need in order for them to feel prepared, competent, and relaxed.  Children can better convey their expectations and the parent can model positive coping strategies to deal with a situation,” Newman commented.
• Have a transitional object from home. “Parents can put a stuffed animal in their child’s backpack, write their child a note, or send them to school with a family picture to help comfort a homesick student,” Newman added.

Dr. Newman encourages parents to have their child go to school instead of keeping them home if they are afraid.  “If parents allow their child to stay home it could increase the child’s anxiety and desire to avoid things that make him or her nervous.  Parents aren’t doing their children any favors by letting them stay home from school,” she said. 

Schools want their students to be happy and successful and Dr. Newman says parents can and should work with principals, social workers, and teachers to help kids adapt.  “I encourage parents to go to school open houses or schedule an informal school tour before school starts – especially for kids in younger grades and older children transitioning to a new school building,” she explained. 

“There is a big difference between a child being nervous about the start of school and a child who suffers anxiety,” said Newman.  “A certain level of nervousness is ok; however if a child has a period of intense anxiety for more than four weeks, it could be a clinical disorder and a parent should take their child to a physician or psychologist,” she added.  

A child could have a clinical anxiety disorder if they have the following symptoms for four or more weeks:

• Constipation or diarrhea
• Stomach pains
• Headache
• Trouble sleeping (e.g., difficulty falling asleep, nightmares)
• Change in eating behavior
• Irritability
• Crying/tantrums
• Persist and excessive worry 

If your child is suffering from back-to-school anxiety, Dr. Newman says you don’t need to despair.  School districts and health professionals are available to help you and your child get the school year off to a good start.

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