If your child is naturally shy, introverted or resistant to change, you probably won’t be surprised when back-to-school anxiety crops up a few weeks before school starts. But what if your typically fearless, hyper-social child suddenly starts to have angry outbursts or impulsive restlessness a couple of weeks before school starts? Could this be a sign of back-to-school jitters?
Transitions can be hard for children at any age, especially for kids who have trouble managing change. Sometimes the unknown can spark a child with a lively imagination to picture the worst. And elementary-school aged children are growing and developing in leaps and bounds, which can often throw physical, mental, and emotional behaviors into an unexpected tizzy.
Regardless of your child’s usual manner, you might do the whole family a favor by expecting the onset of school to cause some degree of anxiety in your elementary student, whether this is the first year of school or the fifth. Being proactive at the first sign of school jitters can help. Here are seven ways to calm anxious feelings before they become overwhelming.
Ask about Feelings.
Don’t assume your child is totally fine unless he says so. Even then, ask questions. Try to frame a variety of feelings for your child to choose from. Say things like, “When kids start school they sometimes feel excited, nervous, anxious, scared, or overwhelmed. What are you feeling?” Being able to express and describe the experience can often take the edge off. You might want to ask this question several times until school settles into a familiar routine and emotions calm down. If kids say they are “fine,” gently question until you get a more detailed response.
Paint a Picture.
Take advantage of school tours and meet-the-teacher days to help your child know what to expect from school. Talk to your child about how nice and orderly school is. Explain how teachers and administrators are in charge and that she will follow a scheduled routine. Make sure your child knows whom to talk to if she has a problem or concern. Assuring your child that there is a plan and steady leadership in place can help her relax. If she feels panicky, reassure her that she will quickly catch on to school routines, and when you come for a school visit, she will be able to show you the ropes.
Keep the Teacher Informed.
If your child is seriously struggling with anxiety beyond what might be considered first-day jitters, keep his teacher in the loop. Teachers are trained to handle every kind of situation that may come up in the classroom. And your child might respond more positively to input from other adults beyond parents. If the situation does not improve after the first-day hurdle is cleared, consider getting a school counselor involved, as well. Know that the school is behind your child and everyone wants him to be successful at school.
Create a Checklist.
Your child will be comforted by tasks that prepare him for school. Resist the urge to do everything for him or try and shield him from the preparation process. Together you can gather lunch-making supplies, shop for school supplies, and select school clothes. These are all concrete tasks that can bring an anxious child back down to earth. Why not create a getting ready checklist for the two of you and check tasks off as they are completed?
Focus on the Positive.
Let’s say your child is definitely nervous about school. There’s no way around it. But chances are good she is also looking forward to some aspects of school. What about seeing her friends every day? How about taking the bus? Does she love libraries full of books? Do what you can to emphasize the positive the first few weeks of school. Offer to pack a special snack for school, let her watch a favorite show after school, or plan a daily call to Grandma to share your child’s adventures. Repress the negative and embrace the positive is your new motto.
Practice the New Routine.
The week before school starts is an important rehearsal time to ease into a new routine. Get your child to bed earlier, wake him up before school will start, feed him well, and get him into the school day mentality. Then before you send him off to play or do chores say, “If today was a school day, it would be time to go to the bus stop,” to help him envision what a school day will be like. Post the daily school day schedule and go over it with him as the big day draws near.
Be Extra Calm Yourself.
If you are contending with your own separation anxiety as you anticipate sending your child off to a school, discuss your feelings with understanding adults out of earshot of your child. Follow these suggestions as a way to settle yourself down, too. Remember that your child is resilient and strong and will adjust to change just fine with support. If you are too quick to jump in and mediate every situation, you might be interfering with her opportunity to see what she can do for herself. So be there, be calm, but don’t hover. Model a you-can-do-it attitude, even if it’s not the way you actually feel in the moment.
Life is full of ups and downs, and so is school. Letting your child tackle academic challenges and succeed will build character and healthy self-esteem. Enjoy surfing the waves together!