Many children (and parents, let’s admit it) are eagerly anticipating the start of a new school year.
For kids, this means looking forward to new classrooms, teachers and friends. For parents, it means getting back into a different daily routine and enjoying some leisure time away from their “Energizer Bunny” children.
While a majority of students experience a mix of emotions between excitement and nervousness, others find the return to classes a cause for extreme fear or panic. Those in the latter group may be experiencing school-related anxiety.
“Think back to a time when you were nervous about a life change. Imagine that feeling amplified to the point where you are hysterical every day leading up to it,” says Dr. Allison Clarke, a child psychologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “That is just a small glimpse at the daily realities for a student who experiences school anxiety.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, children with this kind of anxiety may exhibit:
Due to the distress they experience, children with school anxiety often refuse to attend or stay in class.
“While it is common for children to feel worried in the days leading up to the start of school, these worries should not persist for weeks or months on end,” says Clarke. “If you find that your child experiences the above symptoms on a regular basis, it is best to first seek input from a pediatrician to rule out the possibility of a physical illness.”
If a physical illness is not to blame and the symptoms occur primarily during the times leading up to or during school, Clarke recommends taking these next steps to pinpoint the cause of anxiety and help your son or daughter have peace of mind:
Have an honest conversation and allow them to express what they are feeling. Help children to identify negative thoughts about school and to be a “thought detective”, evaluating how realistic these thoughts may be. Encourage kids to come up with more positive coping thoughts that will allow them to face their fears.
If a problem such as bullying or underachievement is identified, contact school staff for assistance.
Expose them to school in small degrees. It’s important to help kids with anxiety face the feared situation so that they develop confidence in their ability to handle it. If your student is starting the year at a new location, ask a staff member for a quick tour around the building or a look at main locations such as the gym or library. This gives your young one an advanced introduction to their new environment and a friendly face to seek should they need help adjusting. For little ones, read stories that highlight the fun adventures of school in the weeks leading up to their first day.
Talk with school personnel about setting up appropriate accommodations and modifications. Your child may, for example, benefit from having a staff member greet them at the door and guide them to their classroom.
Additionally, children with school anxiety may qualify for Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plan that can offer formal help for K–12 students with learning and attention issues.
If the anxiety interferes with learning, it’s important that parents request these services in writing. Over time, the school will work with the family and the student to set a program that will gradually help the child feel more comfortable and confident in their school environment.
“Taking these few steps can greatly decrease your child’s anxiety by giving them confidence that they are capable of overcoming this obstacle,” says Clarke.