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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.