Most children are stressed by the advent of going back to school after summer break. But stress isn't the same as anxiety, which manifests as avoidance of school preparation and avoidance of talking about school and irritability about the topic. Children who are naturally anxious or have anxiety disorders are the most fragile when it comes to anticipatory anxiety about school.
Depending on the developmental age, children's worries will vary. Here's how to help your child cope with their fears at every stage of school.
The kindergartner has little notion of school except for experiences in preschool. Preschools that prepare children predominantly through play of the child's direction actually prepare children best because they build their ability to share, socialize and express themselves.
Preschools that undervalue play and focus on rote learning and academics place children at a disadvantage for the critical thinking skills they'll need to attain, such as flexibility, impulse control, empathy, learning the impact of their actions on others, frustration tolerance and problem solving in a collaborative way.
Children entering kindergarten or any new school should visit the school as often as needed prior to the first day of classes. Walk them through the building, let them play on the playground and try to arrange for them to meet the teacher and principal in a friendly, informal introduction.
Grade school students
Each grade brings new anxiety as children wonder about the style of the teacher and the children they know or don't know. Play dates before school starts can help prepare them to be with their classmates in an unpressured setting.
Knowing the bus route and who they may be able to sit with on the bus eases anxiety. If the child has had social conflicts or experienced bullying in the past, begin to troubleshoot with your child how to react when encountering those children again.
For children with behavior problems or those who lack impulse control, finding out the teacher's style of discipline and talking about specific behaviors to that are appropriate or inappropriate is one way to prepare the child. In integrated classrooms, children are exposed to many different temperaments, and tolerance for these differences can be discussed ahead of time. Most children are empathic toward others with disabilities or problematic behavior as long as they're not targeted themselves.
Unless the child has had problems in school before, it's best not to present any possible upsetting scenarios that could happen. Instead, be an available listener to the anxious child and soothe any concerns.
Separation anxiety can be most prevalent in early grades, but can reappear in older children with a change of school. Making sure your child knows where you'll be during the day and when you'll see each other again helps considerably. Try not to set a pattern of allowing your child to text you frequently. Children need to find their way on their own without anxiously checking in with parents. School is the child's place for work and play. Parents have their own lives, but are available to talk about the day's events each evening.
If your child has difficultly academically, keep up with learning during the summer to prevent regression. Do this playfully by reading frequently with children, doing math problems on computer programs, and engaging kids in house or yard activities that require some math skills.
Families who are moving to new communities are best off making the move early in the summer, so children can become familiar with their surroundings ahead of time.
Children with clear anxiety problems, such as panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety, social anxiety and separation anxiety, should begin treatment before school starts so they have the resources of adults to depend on if they have difficulties.
If medications are required, make sure they're worked out long before school starts. These include psychotropic medications for ADHD, anxiety, depression and dysregulated emotions. Try to ensure nothing new arises as school begins other than new teachers and students. All else should be familiar.
Middle and high schoolers
Adolescents experience mostly social anxiety as the school year approaches. They tend to experiment with different social groups, learning the ins and outs of the importance—or lack of importance—of popularity, acceptance into a circle of friends or selection of a few loyal best friends. If peer pressure arises during the summer months, parents will want to use the opportunity to discuss topics such as sex, drugs and respecting the law.
If the school is in a difficult neighborhood where there is violence, or if the school has security measures in place, simply prepare the child about what may be encountered without going into frightening details. Play down watching the news about violent events in schools. Although the media focuses on them, they remain outside the norm.
Throughout the summer, look for opportunities when any problems arise to teach your teen how to problem solve. Praise them for their specific talents and aptitudes to help build self-confidence. General praise, like "good job" or "way to go," often go unheeded because they're not specific enough. Help teens to recognize their assets.
Be observant about what's on your teen's mind by listening attentively. Refrain from interrupting when your teen shares ideas, interests, intentions, feelings or beliefs. Don't offer ready solutions, but be a sounding board. Children and teens who feel understood gain confidence and are better prepared for school.
The most important factor for the anxious child is a strong parent-child bond that the child can rely on no matter what takes place during the school day. When such parent-child engagement becomes frequent and familiar, the child can trust that bond despite any challenges at school.
The key to helping your children and teens feel at ease about starting their new school year is to build their confidence by offering specific praise, noting their talents and -- most importantly -- being a great listener. When children know they can share their observations or challenges, and their parents will listen, they go to school with the parents' calm, steady voice in the back of their minds to keep them grounded throughout the day.