Posted on: August 20, 2019
After spending several years in the school system as a School Social Worker, I’ve seen my fair share of first day jitters in students and parents alike! Back to school can be a stressful time and worries are common. Students worry about may different school related issues, such as: teachers, friends, fitting in, and/or being away from parents. Some common worries include:
• Who will be my teacher?
• What if my teacher does not like me?
• Will any of my friends be in my class(es)?
• Will I fit in?
• Are my clothes OK?
• Will I look stupid?
• Who will I sit with at lunch?
• What if I miss the bus?
• What if I am late to school?
• What if I can’t understand the new schoolwork?
• What if something bad happens to mom or dad while I am at school?
Although it is normal for your child to have worries, it is critical to make your child attend school. Avoidance of school will INCREASE and reinforce your child’s fears over the long-term, and make it increasingly more difficult to attend as the school year progresses. Besides missing school work, children and teens who stay home because of anxiety miss valuable opportunities to develop and practice social skills, important chances to succeed and master new skills, being acknowledged and praised for talents, and fostering close relationships with classmates. Most importantly, anxious children and teens who miss school cannot gather evidence that challenges their unrealistic and catastrophic fears.
Here are some general strategies parents and care givers can use to help with back to school worries.
ARE BASIC NEEDS BEING MET?
No one is able to use coping skills well when they are tired, hungry, or hangry. Anxious children often forget to eat, don’t feel hungry, and don’t get enough sleep. Provide frequent and nutritious snacks for your child. Having a snack bin in the pantry or drawer in your refrigerator that is fully stocked at all times gives your child the independence and autonomy to take care of their own basic needs. Building regular routines is also a key component so life is more predictable for your child. These routines can involve the morning and bedtime habits, as well as eating schedules.
TALK TO YOUR CHILD
Ask your child what is making him or her worried. Tell your child that it is normal to have concerns and many other children in their class are having the same concerns. Normalizing worries and anxiety may actually reduce the anxiety. Before and during the first few weeks of school, set up a regular time and place to talk. Some children feel most comfortable in a private space with your undivided attention (such as right before bed, or during mealtime). Teens often welcome some sort of distraction to cut the intensity of their worries and feelings (such as driving in the car, or taking a walk).
PROBLEM SOLVE WITH YOUR CHILD
Children often seek reassurance that bad things won’t happen in order to reduce their worry. Do not assure them with “Don’t worry!” or “Everything will be fine!” Because if things do not end up “fine” they will take this as a mis-trust from you. Instead, encourage your child to think of ways to solve his or her problem. For example, “If (the worst) happens, what could you do?” or “Let’s think of some ways you could handle that situation.” This gives you the opportunity to coach your child on how to cope with (and interpret) both real and perceived anxieties. You will also be giving your child the tools he/she needs to cope with an unexpected situation that might arise. You can do this by role playing with your child, focusing on the positive, and paying attention to your own behavior.
Timeline Leading Up to the First Day of School
At least one week before:
• Start your child on a school-day routine – waking up, eating, and going to bed at regular times. Explain that everyone in the family needs to adjust to the new schedule, so he or she doesn’t feel alone with these changes.
• Practice your walk to school or bus stop to see what time your child will need to wake in the morning to get there on time
• For older children who having troubles getting up and out of bed, give them an alarm clock, and let them practice using it.
• Ask your child to help plan school lunches for the first week.
• Create a list of school supplies together and plan a fun shopping trip.
• Teach and practice coping skills to use when feeling nervous, such as calm deep breathing, or imagining they are in their favorite place, rather than a place that is causing them anxiety.
A few days before school:
• For young children taking the school bus, describe and draw out the bus route, including where the bus goes and how long it takes to get to school. Talk about bus safety.
• Take a tour of the school. Show your child the classrooms, the cafeteria, and the bathrooms. If possible, meet your child’s teacher with your child present. Set up desks and lockers if able. Walk to each class in order.
• Ask your child to help choose the outfits for the first week of school. Arrange outfits in a sweater rack and label Monday to Friday. Let your child wear his or her favorite outfit on the first day.
• Together with your child, pack up the school bag the night before, including treats.
• For younger children who are nervous about separating, suggest taking a special object to school that reminds him of home. A reassuring note in a child’s lunch can also help ease separation anxiety. Make matching bracelets together so when your child is nervous or anxious they can look at the bracelet and think of you.
The first day of school:
• Have your child go to school with a friend for the first couple of days.
• Tell the teacher that your child is having some separation anxiety – most teachers are experts in this area, and have years of experience!
• Most importantly, praise and reward your child for brave behavior!
• Remember to take care of yourself as well! Most anxious kids are feeding off of parent’s anxiety.