Worries are common in the weeks leading up to starting back to school. Depending on the age and personality of the child, you might see temper tantrums, clinging, headaches or stomach aches, withdrawal/isolation, pleading, bargaining, even anger or flat refusal to go to school. It is important for the parent or caregiver to NOT give in.
Reasons children may worry can center around the following questions: “Who will my new teacher be/is the teacher going to be mean? Who will I sit with at school? Will I look OK? What if I miss the bus? What if I do poorly in math?” Even though it may be easier for the parent to just allow the child to stay home, it is crucial to have the child attend school. Skipping would only increase and prolong the fear because the irrational thoughts behind the fear and anxiety never gets a chance to be proven wrong, or the child never has the chance to master the perceived problem.
Ways parents and caregivers can help:
1. Take care of basic needs - Sleep. Get a routine schedule set weeks before school starts to "reset" their internal clock. Eat regular healthy meals and snacks, and include exercise. These basic needs help the child to be able to pay attention and attend to higher level worries in a productive manner.
2. Provide empathy - Listen to their concerns. Some children like the more casual method of bringing up topics in car rides, lines at the store, bath-time or during dinner. Others may prefer a more purposeful one-on-one private time to talk.
3. Problem solve with child - After you feel like you understand their concern, develop a coping strategy and plan with the child. Anxious children tend to have doubts about their ability to cope with situations. Parents can "coach" them with potential scenarios. For example, "What if (the worst) happens, what could you do?" "Let's think of some ways you could cope with that."
4. Focus on the positive - Once you understand what they are worried about and have come up with a plan, you can redirect attention from fears toward positives. "What are 3 things you look forward to most about your first day of school?"
5. Pay attention to your own behavior - Parents of younger children can sometimes have anxiety about taking their children to school and turning them over to teachers at first. Younger children can pick up on the anxiety of their parents. Parents can help relieve their children’s anxiety by modeling calm and confidence in the situation and in their child's ability to cope. Also, being supportive but firm; saying good-byes cheerfully---and only once! Remember not to reward protests and tantrums by allowing them to stay home. Calmly tell your child, "I can see going to school scares you, but you still have to go. Tell me what you're worried about so we can talk about it."
A good timeline for setting a back to school routine:
1-2 weeks before school
* Get the child back on their bedtime schedule and rituals. This may mean the whole family may need to adjust nighttime activities to wind down.
* Have the child help plan lunches for first week of school.
* Plan a fun shopping trip to get lunch items and school supplies.
2-3 days before school
* Drive by the school. Most schools are open and welcome parents and kids come inside to take a peek or even a tour. Some offer back-to-school activities like "Meet the teacher."
* If the child will be taking the bus, drive the school bus route and discuss bus safety.
* Have your child help pick out their outfit for first day.
First day of school
* Make your child's favorite breakfast.
* If possible, drive your child to school rather than having them take the bus.
* If applicable, discuss separation anxiety issues with teachers.
* Praise and reward brave behavior and coping skills on the first day of school and throughout the school year.
Information provided by Christi Lawson, LCSW.