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Young Kids and Back to School Anxiety: How to Shrink it Down to Size

by Dr. Joan Simeo Munson
Young Kids and Back to School Anxiety: How to Shrink it Down to Size

As the start of the school year approaches, have you seen your first grader go into meltdown mode at the mention of school, or watched your soon-to-be kindergartner regress back to baby talking and thumb sucking? Rest assured that you’re not alone. Each fall, millions of parents deal with their children’s beginning-of-the-year anxiety. For younger children starting school—whether it’s pre-school, kindergarten, or a transition into the first or second grade—having a grown-up lean down and say, “How exciting, you’re starting school soon,” can be similar to telling an adult they’re going to be scaling Mt. Everest next week!  And the fears children have about school can be very real: they may be apprehensive about separating from their parents, riding the school bus, or meeting a new teacher.  The emotions your child experiences before the start of school can also lead to a general sense of anxiety—a feeling most children won’t be able to articulate.

"Keep in mind that the age of your child offers no reassurance that they will experience less anxiety."

It’s important to remember that when placed in any new situation, all children (and parents, too) are going to need to take time to adjust.  Realize that your child will require a period of time to figure out their comfort zone and what’s required for them to fit in to their new environment. Fortunately, there are steps you can take as a parent to make the prospect less daunting–the key is to prepare your child both emotionally and physically so that they can have the best start possible this school year.

Take away as Many “Unknowns” as Possible
One way you can help ease your child’s anxiety is to show them what their school year will look like. Anxiety often feeds on fear of the unknown, so try a common sense approach to take away as many of these from the equation as possible. A few weeks before school starts, consider doing the following:

  • Talk to your child about what they’re going to be doing in the upcoming school year. If your child is starting school for the first time, see if there’s a kindergarten orientation or a way to meet their teacher before school begins. Whether they’re starting a new elementary school or going back to the same one, go explore it with your child. Review where their class will be, visit the cafeteria, the library or the art room. Take them to the playground (with a friend who’ll be going to their school, if possible) to help them get adjusted and feel comfortable at the school. Give your child a “preview” of the new faces and places they’ll be seeing. This can help to “right size” the school in your child’s mind and take the fear and mystery out of it.
  • Many schools post their school itineraries online so parents can review what their children will be learning, what activities they’ll engage in, and what fun things they may do during the year. Use this information to get your child excited about school.
  • Talk about your own school days, the fun activities you loved, and what made your school experience special. Kids love to hear stories from their parents’ childhood because it helps normalize any difficult feelings they are experiencing. (As an added benefit, I’ve found that these talks with my own children have become a springboard for them to ask questions about their own hopes and fears concerning school.) 

“But Who Will I Play with at Recess?”

Many kids, even those aged 7 and younger, initially experience anxiety over how they will handle social situations in the new school year.  They may worry that they won’t have anyone to eat lunch with or play with at recess, or they might be afraid—and rightfully so—of last year’s class bully.  Try the following tips to help your child feel comfortable in social settings at school:

  • If your child hasn’t seen school friends over the summer, it isn’t too late to invite them over to help your child get re-acquainted with them and excited for school. Visits to the park, pool, or movies with old friends—and new ones, too—can make your child feel more comfortable when they encounter their peers at school.
  • Try doing some role plays with your child to help ease their fears. For example, if you discover that your child is afraid of riding the school bus, set up an area in the house and do a “pretend” ride to school. Take turns being the bus driver, your child, or his or her classmates. Come up with ideas together to make riding the bus a less scary prospect.
  •  If your child was in school last year, talk to them about any social situations that caused them stress. Reviewing strategies on how to handle bullies or other negative social situations can relieve the tension your child may have prior to school beginning.  Remind them of their options when another child is bullying them. For example, they can walk away from the situation, inform the teacher, or yell loudly, “Stop it, I don’t like that!” (And as a parent, don’t forget to talk with your child’s teacher about any classroom policies they might have regarding bullying.)
  • If your child bullied others or acted out in the classroom, set up some guidelines for what you expect of him or her socially this year, along with consequences of what will happen if he does not comply. Equally important, create a list of possible rewards for improved behavior. Remind your child that this is a new year and express your confidence that he or she will behave better now that they’re a year older. 

If Your Child’s Anxiety Persists

It’s not uncommon to do all the right things and still have a young child who will have a bad case of the nerves—or even more extreme anxiety—before they begin the school year. Many kids will report physical symptoms such as a stomach or head ache. Others will regress to earlier behaviors, including thumb sucking or wetting the bed, while other kids may act out aggressively, fighting a lot with siblings, or talking back to their parents. Keep in mind that the age of your child offers no reassurance that they will experience less anxiety. Whether you have a tender-hearted preschooler beginning school for the first time, or an outgoing child entering first grade, each may experience nervousness and stress at the beginning of school. Here are some ways you can talk to your child to help reduce their fears:

  • Know that a child starting pre-school for the first time may experience more anxiety than an older child. In simple terms, tell them that everyone will be new—and is feeling the same way they are! Promise your little one a special surprise after their first day. This can include a small toy, a new book, or special time with a parent. To normalize your child’s feelings, remind them that everyone, including other students and even their teacher, feels a little nervous on their first day—or even throughout their first week—of school. If you can, talk about your own experiences of being scared about school and what your fears were when you were young.
  • Allow your kids to talk about their fears and give them reassurance that this is normal. With some kids, you may have to probe a little:  Are they afraid they won’t get a nice teacher?  Are they nervous about not having any friends?  Does the school work scare them?  Whatever it is, continue to emphasize that all children have these fears and they are not alone.  
  • Try coaching your child in problem solving.  For instance, if they’re afraid to ask the teacher questions, do role plays together on how to speak up in class. For shy children, you can also practice the art of social skills together: role play introducing yourself to peers, sharing, and using words (instead of hitting, grabbing or pinching) when you interact with others.  If your child is scared of school work, talk about ways you will help them when they get home. Let them know how they can work on areas that they struggle with (like reading out loud or spelling) and ask, “What would be helpful for you when it comes to spelling?”
  •  If the first couple of months of school pass and your child still exhibits signs of difficulty adjusting, begin by talking with his or her teacher to see if there are things you can do together to ease their anxiety. If it still persists, talk to your pediatrician about what your options are.

I also advise parents to make the first week of school a special event for your family. If both parents work outside the home, consider adjusting your work schedule for that first week (if at all possible) to make your child’s transition smoother. Research shows that the first week of school is really tough for kids, no matter the age. Younger kids going through a lot of new and challenging experiences need to feel secure at the beginning of the school year to help them adjust appropriately for the rest of the year.  It would be a good idea for a parent or trusted caregiver to be home after school during the first week to talk with your child, but this may not always be possible. If not, set aside a time in the evenings to discuss how your child’s day went and to listen to any concerns. Other ways to celebrate the first week include having family meals together, making your kids’ favorite foods for dinner, packing special notes in their lunch, or going out together as a family for ice cream after dinner.

Going to school offers a wide range of emotions for parents as well as children. Whether it’s dread or excitement, fear or euphoria, all of these feelings can be bottled up inside our kids. Remember that any one symptom of distress does not cement a child’s fate or mean that their school year will be a failure. All kids, at some point in their academic career, will struggle, so try hard not to view their setbacks or anxiety as a permanent threat to their school career.  Every year that your child goes through school will be filled with highs and lows, good moments and devastating ones.  However, through encouragement, support and keeping your finger on the pulse of you child’s emotions, you are laying the groundwork for their future success in school.


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Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

READER'S COMMENTS

This article helped alot with ideas on how to comfort my kindergartner. He did pretty good with pre-school, but he will be in a new school where he does not know anyone. I am keeping my fingers crossed that he will be his normal outgoing self. My only problem will be with getting him to do his classwork. In pre-k he refused to do his work. He would not even color. Any advise with that would be great.

Comment By : Peachy3878

What a timely and informative article. As a mom of three school age children (8, 8 and 10) our family is experiencing much of what has been described in this article. We have just under two weeks left before school begins and I appreciate the advice given by Dr. Munson. It would have been helpful, though, if she elaborated a bit on how to handle bullying. That is one of my 10 year old son's greatest concerns.

Comment By : vineyardsrunningmom

The tips in the article are good -- but what to do when it's Dad with the anxiety and not the kindergarten-er? We both walk him to school and kiss him goodbye when the class starts to move inside, but Dad won't move away from the door. He hovers, and sure enough, little one comes back to the door several times to get extra hugs and then can't manage to get his backpack hung up without Daddy coming into the classroom. He's the only Dad doing this, btw; all the other kindies are figuring it out, and I'm sure ours would too, if Dad would let go. I'm concerned he's undermining our son's confidence in himself. He did this at daycare until the day care provider took me aside and asked if there was any way I could drop our son off instead of his dad -- he was disrupting the entire group with 'the long goodbye'. Seems like Dad isn't satisfied until little one is nervous and in tears about being left. Any suggestions?

Comment By : Js Mom

This article was very helpful. my kindergardener is having a very hard time adjusting. he has been hitting other kids and refusing to do work. i thought i was the only one. the lady with the dad problem... sorry lady you need to tell him to stop. why do you need help with that?

Comment By : breatheasier

* Dear Peachy3878: I feel your pain, because in our house we have some kids who are more motivated than others to do schoolwork! However, I want you to put something in perspective here: your son is in kindergarten. This is a time, not necessarily to master academics (that will come, trust me), but to learn how to navigate being in elementary school. Kindergarten is a great time to learn how to stand in line, be quiet in the halls, eat your lunch in 25 minutes and share with others. I would not worry one bit about how motivated your child is to color, draw, or read. He has a lifetime of school ahead of him to master these skills. The one thing you don't want to do though, is to make this an issue with him. Kids quickly learn what is important to us, and if your little one senses that you are pushing him in a direction he is not ready to go in, it is likely he will push back harder. Trust in your teachers to motivate your child to do the things he needs to get done at school. They somehow have a magical touch that can make even the most unmotivated child want to do more! Continue to read at home, offer fun opportunities for art work, and play together. This is all your child needs to be doing at this point in his development.

Comment By : Dr. Joan Munson

I like your comments geared toward the younger school age but what about High school. I have recently been looking at these pages and would like someone help with one of my children and of course you do not know everything that we have tried. The peer pressure is tremendous where we live and the teachers can't just be on top of things like with the elementary age schools. Get real by the time the kids get to middle school the kids know how to work any school system and teacher. The kids get better at beating the school system where we live. High school is where both of my last two children are the oldest is graduating with honors and does sports and can handle the school system to better himself. The other child that I love the same is always confused, can't stay on top of things and has been with a group of kids that really do not care. I didn't realize that there were so many students at his level, (which they can do the work) really do not care. For some ungodly reason they choose to not do. I would like to know is anyone willing to communicate on this? I do have another child that has finished college and done very well. Share some thoughts or any insite on this, anyone.

Comment By : School Blue Clue

* Dear Js Mom: You are absolutely correct when you say that your husband is undermining your son's confidence. My question to you is, have you sat down and had a heart-to-heart with your husband about this? It obviously is bothering you and will be detrimental to you son at some point if it continues. I'm not sure why everyone is tip-toeing around your husband, but he needs you to say something like: "Honey, it seems like you are having a hard time saying good-bye at drop off. I feel, as do his teachers, that this is harmful to our son. What's going on?" And then listen carefully to what he has to say. Was he picked on as a kid? Is he afraid your son is too shy? Does he have expectations for your son that are unreasonable? The only way to stop this behavior is to get to the bottom of it and that can only be done candidly, through open discussion between the two of you. The very best, most healthy way to drop your child off at school is to develop a ritual (as much for us parents as for our children). Develop one that works best for your family. In our house we have one kiss, one hug, one blown kiss as we walk away and then we turn and don't look back. This sends the message to our kids that we love and adore them, but we have the confidence that they will navigate their way through their school day just fine without us. All children need to know that their parents trust them to make the best decisions in an independent manner. This is hard and I appreciate your husband's feelings, but he needs you to tell him that he is not helping your son through this developmental phase by hovering over him.

Comment By : Dr. Joan Munson

This article sure rings true for me. The only difference is my son seemed fine prior to school beginning. It's two weeks in now that we are experiencing problems. The same was true last year. Everything went fine for a while, then the problems started. He is in second grade now. I believe that most of his anxiety is due to feeling afraid that he won't be able to do the assignments/things asked of him. He is a bit of a perfectionist and gets upset if he can't get something right. Most of the time, his response is to not try at all. For example, writing is what he hates most. When his teacher assigned them, during 1st grade, to sit at their desks and journal for 20 minutes, my son wrote 3 words. Personally, I think asking a 6 yr. old boy to sit quietly still and journal for 20 minutes is pushing it anyway, but this is just an example of how he shuts down. This article is helpful for me in giving me some ideas of discussions I can have with him now about these fears. I have always been one to worry about things that haven't happened yet. I had a counselor ask me once, if any of my worries ever actually happened, and I realized at that moment that they hadn't. I was projecting that all these terrible outcomes were going to come from a situation, and driving myself crazy with stress. But after all was said and done, my perceived bad outcome never happened. I realized then how much time I was wasting on all this worry. I realize now that my son must be doing his own version of the same thing. I assume he is worrying himself, to the point of complaining of stomach aches, over perceived failures in school. Hopefully I can now use this information to try to help him work through it.

Comment By : Samianhill

My daughter is entering the second grade. In first grade she had a difficult year. She went into counseling and this helped with her fears. We had a wonderful tutor this summer to boost her reading confidence. She is exhibiting the fearful behavior again, and my anxiety is escalating because I so want her to be ok with this new school year. Any advice?

Comment By : mom1307

* Dear mom1307: I think it's great that you took your daughter to counseling. I'm wondering what the outcome was: was she in fact diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, or was it determined that she simply has normal fears about starting school? If it is the latter, then I have a few suggestions: First, most kids have some anxiety about going to school. As a result, it is your job to help relieve that anxiety for your daughter. What I mean by that is that she is looking to you as to how she should be acting/reacting to starting school. You can say, "I understand you don't always want to go to school--all kids feel this way at times. But I expect you to go to school because it is what all kids your age do. I also know that once you get there, you will be fine because your teacher really wants to help you and so do I." Then, review some things you can do to make her transition easier: Suggestions: Create a drop-off point where you will say your final good-byes. If she takes the bus, for example, you can have 3 hugs and 2 kisses before the bus picks her up and one blown kiss while she is on the bus. Smile brightly and say, "I know you'll have a great day! See you after school!". This also works if you are dropping her off at school. The point here is to create a ritual that she will get used to every day. Try very hard not to deviate from this (holding on to each other, telling her you know she is sad, crying). Remember that you are in charge of making her feel confident. You can also send a note in her lunch box each day, something light and cheery (example: "I know you are doing great! See you after school! I love you!). Talk with her teacher and let her know what you are doing at home to ease her transition. Have your teacher help you with this, as well. Create a chart at home where she gets a sticker each day she goes to school and does not cry/whine/act anxious, etc. If she can make it through the week, celebrate on Friday by doing something fun (a movie, ice cream, etc.) The key here is to not let your own emotions get in the way of her being independent from you. She is looking to you to know how to act, so let her know everyday in the most matter of fact way that you have confidence in her ability to do this! Good luck, and please keep in touch and let us know how it goes with your daughter this year.

Comment By : Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

I would like to know what to do about a child who already has anxiety and withdrawal( no formal diagnosis- just school testing BASC-2) and is having significant trouble adjusting to kindergarten. It has been 3 weeks of school and my little one still cries at school. When I spoke to the teacher she said that we should wait the 6-8 weeks to see how it goes. My child also doesn't speak to other children unless directed to and isn't playing with anyone on the playground.There is very limited support by the school and I don't know what to do. Any suggestions would be welcomed. Thank you.

Comment By : lookingforhelp

* To “lookingforhelp”: It can be distressing for parents when their child has a difficult time transitioning to school. It’s not unusual for some children to take a little bit longer to adjust to the new setting and the new routine. That may be why the teacher is suggesting waiting 6-8 weeks to see how it goes. You might consider problem solving with your son things he could do while at school to help him transition to the new environment. Maybe you could role play interactions he could have with the other children to help him become more comfortable talking or playing with them. I can hear your concern there might be something else going on, such as anxiety around school. We would encourage you to talk with his pediatrician about these concerns. Let him know the difficulty your son is having transitioning and developing peer relationships. He may have other suggestions that could be helpful for your situation. We would also encourage you to continue working closely with the school and his teacher. Developing a good working relationship with the school can be beneficial in coming up with a plan for helping your son work through this challenge. We hope this information is helpful for you and wish you and your family the best. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

my six year old is happy but when we get to the school she strts to cry and doesnt want to go and i dont no why shes bright and is not behind in her leavel for grade one shes is ahead of what is expected for grade one . the begining of the year she was fine and now the last 2 weeks ive had this problem and we cant get past it i dont no what to do. after about a hlf hour or hour mostly i can get her in and shes fine i pick her up after school shes happy we play at the school with friends for an hour about then everyone gets going home and us as well with no problem. i dont no what to do for each morning though when we go its the same thing every morning when we arrive she gets upset and is crying and just doent want to go.

Comment By : cindese

* Dear cindese: It is not uncommon for kids to start out the year ready and willing to go to school, only for them to realize a few months into the year that this is a permanent and daily routine! Some kids aren't too happy about that and will start to do exactly what your child is doing. The first thing to do is to talk to your daughter and her teacher to make sure she is not experiencing any problems within the classroom such as bullying or feeling overwhelmed. If there are no problems then you have to develop a phrase for her that you will say each day, something soothing and comforting. An example may be: "I know you don't always want to go to school, but it's part of our day. What do you think you'll learn about today?" This can also help her keep her mind off leaving you, which may be part of the problem. Most kids have separation anxiety at some point in their development, so make certain you are excited and happy that she is going to her classroom and not sending the message that you are anxious about her day. Lastly, you will have to involve your child's teacher to assure both your child and yourself that she will have the best day she possibly can. At the meeting with the teacher ask if you can develop a plan for your daughter that will help her adjust to being dropped off and entering the classroom. I'm certain your daughter's teacher deals with this type of problem all the time and will have a lot of suggestions as to how to make her entry into school go a bit smoother. Hope this is helpful for you and your daughter. Please keep in touch and let us know how it goes.

Comment By : Dr. Joan

The article is great but what to do about a 1st grader who periodically gets upset over something that happened last school year to the point where she does not want to go to school? I try to talk her through it and explain it happened only once and wont happen again and also role play and tell her what she can do if she has a problem like it in school again, but she cries. It's hard to know sometimes if it is something that happened yesterday or last yr. I ask thew teacher and they say they didnt see anything happen. I tell my daughter to tell the teacher when something happens but I think she is intimidated. I feel as though she forgets that she can tell the teacher. I remind her but I can't be there to make sure she does it. I have spoken with the school teacher and bus driver about similar incidences and I start to wonder if they even take her seriously anymore. Any suggestions?

Comment By : Concerned mom

Im really sorry to bother you Dear Dr Joan Simeo Munson , today i said to myself that I have to speak with you . Im the mother of Maria a girl from uk , uk schools begin primary school at age of 4 , from reception ...my child is 4-year and 4 mounth and it seems we have a Big problem...... Im not saying is big ,but she is not totlking in school time....and as a mother im quite concern .She start foundation in september and teacher told me she is very shy and doesnt speak at all, which is a bib big concern to me and my husbund .The teacher i found very nice with everybody ,they told me she will be fine ...but Im scared becouse today a teacher told me that she doesnt know how is gonna be with Mara , so Thats why i decided to write to you ASAP. Maria , my child is is an incredibly shy child when she is outside the house . She's loud and happy when it's just our immediate family, but bring a new person into the mix and it takes her a very long time to warm up as far as I see here in school . She says she likes school very much and she is learning, at home she does her homework she does more than that ,the teacher said she is listening and do everything perfect if she ask Maria to write or drow something. she is a very happy child , our marriage is a very good one so she doesnt have any trauma or stuff .I cant believe she is like that but she's very quiet when she meet new faces and seems to have a hard time making friends at school . How can I encourage her to come out of her shell a little?I dont know what to do .... In the class , Within minutes, it seems, everyone knows their name and wants to be their friend..but becouse she is shy , she told me she feel bad kids laughf of her becouse of that ...etc etc ...and she gets more frustrated ..we always tried to treat Maria as an adult , tolked everything she asked ,..like a normal family will do.I asked her if she want to go back to nursery but she doesnt couse she said nursery is bored and at school is so fun ,becouse she like learning new things.At home she pretend to be the teacher and she always with a book in her hands teach her dolls, she is very creative. I dont know the reason that my child acts one way at home and another in front of others. I already spoked with some psihologysts but they told me she will be ok ...But maybe you can do more, I dont know whatch her a litlle bit ,..I really dont know what to do .She said to us she is a litlle bit shy at school so , she knows that but Why she cannot come up ? In other instances, a child may feel shy in certain new or uncomfortable situations, or develop shyness after an embarrassing experience.I think she didnt have such experience , or maybe who knows ..... , I dont know ......Now My husbund tell me is my fought and I dont want to argue with him , he said Im to mouthy ... Please help me to deal with that , Couse she s a smart child and I dont want shyness hold my child back. Many ,many Thx ,Mariana please excuse my spelling mistakes

Comment By : Mariana

* Dear Mariana, I know how incredibly frustrating it is to have a child act one way at home and another at school! I know this may not be what you wanted to hear, but I agree with the other psychologists and her teacher that this is all very, very normal behavior for a child your daughter's age. Most kids, when beginning school, take time to process their surroundings and see where their comfort level is. Your daughter is doing this now and you and your husband need to give her space to feel comfortable in her own way. If you berate her or make her feel like she is doing something wrong she will retreat further into her shell and become even more introverted. Recognize that her temperament might be different from yours or your husband's and respect who she is at this time in her development. Having said that, there is no reason that you can't help her along with developing friends outside of the classroom. Some ideas may be: invite one child she likes from school to play at your house for an afternoon, since your daughter seems to feel comfortable at home. You could also plan to have 2 or 3 small children she enjoys to a movie, to a park or to your house for a craft project or to bake something. This can encourage her to expand her social skills in her own comfort zone and in her own time. Lastly, please try not to let her see how concerned you are. I know it's hard to watch your child struggle, but your daughter needs to know that you have confidence in her as she tries out new social skills. Good luck!

Comment By : Dr. Joan

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