Whether your child is transitioning to a new school this year or staying in the same familiar building, they may begin feeling nervous about the start of school.
Back-to-school anxiety is often a part of the transition to a new school year for children. Since the start of the pandemic, it has affected some kids more intensely. It’s also more common when kids change schools.
Moving from elementary school to middle school may cause stronger back-to-school anxiety, since there are new things to worry about: Getting lost in the hallways. Struggling to open lockers. Not knowing anyone in classes.
Most children can manage back-to-school anxiety with the support of the adults in their lives. To help your child feel less nervous about school:
- Reintroduce school-year structure to your child’s routine. You may let your child stay up late and sleep in during the summer. Two weeks or so before school starts, start shifting your child’s bedtime and wakeup time earlier, so it won’t be jarring to awaken early for school. If your child has a specific sleep problem, we have FAQs that might help.
- Visit the school building. Take advantage of opportunities to meet teachers, tour the building or attend a gathering before the first day of school. If this isn’t possible, visiting the grounds and pointing out the entrances may help your child feel more comfortable on the first day. We know that exposing children to the thing they are afraid of, and practicing, is one of the best ways to deal with nerves and fear.
- Schedule playdates. If your child hasn’t seen any school friends lately, reintroduce them so they become familiar with each other again after the summer break. If your child is entering middle school and a neighbor or cousin already goes there, get your child together with them so that they can learn “insider” details and feel more confident about the transition.
- Shop for school supplies. Letting your child pick out notebooks, pencils, backpacks and other gear that they love may help them feel more excited about the upcoming year.
- Talk about the positives. Get your child eager about returning to school by having conversations with them during summer break. Maybe they can’t wait to see a favorite teacher or play with friends during recess. Remembering good experiences may help them feel less anxious.
- Listen to their concerns. Help your child identify the thoughts that may be causing their anxiety. For example, are they thinking no one will like them? Are they worried they will not do well in math? Then, help them problem-solve and talk back to those negative thoughts. Figuring out solutions together may help them feel more self-assured. If they’re worried about having a locker, practice opening padlocks together. If they’re worried about not knowing anyone in class, help them think of the ways that they’ve made friends in the past. If they’re worried about missing you, let them know about your work schedule; they’ll know that when they’re starting their day, you’re attending meetings or reading emails.
- Notice physical symptoms. Fear, stress, and nerves often shows up as belly aches, headaches, or nausea. If medical reasons have been ruled out, it’s possible your child is experiencing their emotions physically. Practice daily diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation exercises to help them learn how to cope with the physical tension and decrease symptoms.
- Avoid avoidance. We often want to protect our kids from strong, uncomfortable emotions. So we may be tempted to allow them to stay at home. But did you know that by hiding away from our fears, it actually makes them worse? Use the tools discussed above to cope with strong emotions and negative thoughts, and then encourage your child to go to school. If necessary, have a plan in place with a teacher or counselor at school that allows your child to take a relaxation break when needed, and then get back to class.
When Is More Help Needed?
Most kids adjust to the new school year within two to three weeks. If your child continues to be anxious, refuses to go to school or isn’t engaging in the classroom, ask your pediatrician for advice. Your child may benefit from therapy to discuss anxiety issues.