By Summer Batte, author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide
The start of a new school year can be exciting—and also anxiety-provoking. When we anticipate change, it’s natural to worry. And what may seem like minor problems to adults can be big concerns for kids. When kids have worries, one of the best things adults can do is acknowledge how the child is feeling. But we can also show confidence that the child can handle these uncomfortable feelings, and that they can rise to the challenge, even if it takes a bit of help. Here are some common back-to-school fears.
Fear of the unknown
If your child moves to a new classroom with a new teacher every year, you may feel like this should be old hat by fourth or fifth grade. But for kids, last year was a very long time ago. From a new schedule to a new teacher to an entirely new school, there’s a lot to adjust to. If your child’s fear seems to be broadly about a new setting, it may help to scope things out before the start of school. Find their classroom and the nearest restrooms. You may be able to meet their teacher or another adult on campus so that your child feels they have a familiar grown-up to turn to.
If your child is starting middle school, get (or draw) a map of the campus and spend some time finding their classrooms, their locker, the lunchroom, and other important locations. If your child went charging in with gusto a few weeks ago but now—as the shine wears off—is struggling to manage their new scene, talk about what might help make it better, and strategize some changes together.
Fear of separating from adults
With younger kids, it can help to talk a bit about what will be different this year (their teacher, learning an instrument) and what will be the same (the playground, their after-school care).
But separation anxiety isn’t relegated to the primary crowd. Even older kids who have settled into a summer break with more access to loved ones can have a tough time readjusting to being apart. Kids of any age might like to carry a small memento from a loved one. They can also benefit from deep breathing, which lets our brains know that we’re safe. Try taking big breaths in and then exhaling as if to blow bubbles. It’s a good idea to practice this when kids are calm so that they have a better chance of employing the technique under stress.
For kids who worry about missing out on time with your or another adult, see if a regular “date” to spend quality time together can be arranged. If separation at school drop-off becomes more problematic, a next step could be to work with a teacher to arrange a “transfer” in the mornings. In all cases, it’s important for caregivers to convey confidence both in the child’s safety at school and in their ability to handle this (hopefully short-lived) discomfort.
Fear of being late
Some parents would give their right arm to have their child be concerned about tardiness. But for other kids, it can be a real source of stress. Even in elementary school, there are often consequences for arriving late (our family will never forget the march of shame to the office for a pink tardy slip).
Getting to school on time may not be entirely within a young child’s control if there are siblings or a carpool involved. But it’s never too early to work on organizational skills that can help them be on time now and in the future. Fill backpacks (don’t forget the homework!) and place them by the front door at night. Teach your child to start waking up to an alarm clock. And for kids who seem to get lost in thought—say, while brushing their teeth—a timer can make it easy to see how much time has passed. As for the hours at school, a simple watch can go a long way. Kids can learn what time lunch begins and ends, for example, so that they don’t spend their break period stressing about being late getting back to class.
In middle school, kids need to be even more responsible for themselves, getting from class to class during brief passing periods. Working with an older child to map their daily route from classroom to classroom can help immensely. Even if the school year has already started, your child may find that they’re struggling to get to third period on time. Together, you might find a more direct route or rethink their locker stops.
Fear of failure
It seems like every year, kids are told how much more difficult the next year will be. This isn’t incorrect, but it can make some kids worry that they won’t be able to keep up with their classmates, manage the workload, or maintain their grades.
Remind your child that while there may be more—or harder—work to get done, they’re ready for it! After all, last year’s work gradually got harder so that they’d be ready to tackle the next grade level. Setting a specific time each day for homework can reduce worry about finding time to get things done. If keeping track of homework or projects for multiple teachers is overwhelming, ask if your child’s school has a systematic way of assigning work. For example, some middle schools have all students use the same type of planner and ask all teachers to write the day’s homework on their whiteboards. You can reinforce the use of those systems.
If you and your child need to establish your own system for keeping track of work, make it as simple as possible. If writing homework down takes too long, they may be able to snap a photo of the assignments in each class. Some kids find it helpful to have a different color binder for each class. Homework, once completed, goes into the front pocket of each binder so that it’s easy to retrieve and turn in.
For kids anxious about failing tests or completing long-term projects, help them break the work down and set mini-deadlines. Studying for ten minutes a day all week long is going to be more helpful than a stressed-out cram session the night before a quiz. Also, remind them that bad days and bad grades happen. If there is something they can change so that their next grade is better, that’s great. But maybe they just had an off day. “Trying your best” is a wonderful goal, as long as we accept and convey to kids that nobody performs at their best all of the time.
Fear of not finding friends
Whether it’s because they’re at a new school or because there has been some shuffling of friend groups, worrying about finding friends is tough. Remind kids about past successes—like how they made friends on their soccer team or at their last school. You might offer your own story about getting to know people at a new job or help kids find an extracurricular activity that will offer opportunities to bond with peers.
This is also a good opportunity to practice nonverbal social skills. When we’re anxious, it’s easy to appear unapproachable. Keeping your head buried in a book or absorbed in your phone might avoid some awkwardness in the short term, but it also signals to other people that you don’t want to talk or be included. Looking at people and smiling shows you might be open to conversation.
The bottom line, however, is that building friendships takes time. In the meantime, acknowledge that this is difficult and remind your child of what a great kid they are. Their friends are out there—they just need to find them!
Fear of being different
Maybe they don’t want anyone knowing they have anxiety. Or maybe they’re worried that nobody else will have grown three inches and started going through puberty over the summer. Whatever the reason, the great news is that in many cases, it’s likely they’re not so different after all. This may be very apparent when they arrive at school and see that many of their peers have grown a lot since last year.
In other cases, they’re right—they will have a visible or invisible difference. Look for resources or accommodations to help at school, if necessary. And remind them that you—and lots of other people—love them just how they are.
Fear for safety
Whether your child’s school has changed its pandemic precautions or kids have heard about yet another school shooting, safety can be a major source of anxiety. Depending on the particular fear, you may be able to point out what the school does to keep everyone safe: a crossing guard posted at the corner, fire drills, hand sanitizer in the classroom. But in some cases, you may only be able to reassure your child that you, the school, and your community are doing everything they can to keep students safe. If the fear persists, try talking to your child’s teacher or doctor.
General fear busters
Anxiety goes up when basic self-care goes down. That means kids need to be getting a good night’s rest and physical activity every day. Fears can also come to the forefront at bedtime when our brains are tired from the day. You can coach kids to write down their worries at night, with the promise that you’ll both look at them in the morning and decide then what to do. Most of the time, worries look a lot smaller in the light of day. And finally, don’t forget to have some fun! Downtime and family time are key components for a healthy state of mind. A celebratory dinner after the first week of school is a great way to let kids know you are proud of them for pushing through.
Summer Batte has worked as a writer and editor for more than 16 years. For the past four years, much of her work has been focused on research-based advice stories. She came to appreciate her undergraduate studies in psychology at Stanford University more than ever when she experienced peripartum depression and anxiety, and a few years later, learned she was parenting a child with anxiety. For nearly 10 years, she has researched anxiety and learning disorders to ensure her daughter got the education and life she deserved, and also to help explain anxiety, therapy, and medication in a way that respected and trusted her very bright child’s ability to understand complex concepts. She homeschooled her daughter for three years, which led to even more research into learning styles, teaching methods, and the American education system. It also meant she had to relearn a lot of math. When she has downtime, Summer likes being with her family, reading, watching great TV, trying to perfect chocolate chip banana bread, and knitting (which her daughter made her learn). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Summer is the author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide
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