Back to School Anxiety
Close your eyes and take a moment to go back in time and imagine being a child again. Remember being back in school. What memo? What memories are being triggered. Can you recall the colors, sounds, smell, and sight? Are they happy or sad memories? As the beginning of school term approaches - I thought I'd write a blog about back to school anxiety and offer some practical tips. The start of school can be an exciting time for a majority of children but for some it can bring a heightened sense of anxiety. It is estimated that 117 million youth worldwide have an anxiety disorder, 80% of these children are not in treatment?
Why are some children more prone to back to school anxiety?
Children who have difficulty separating from parents, have difficulty with transitions or who have recently experienced a dramatic experience (such divorce or grief/bereavement) are more prone to anxiety. In addition, children transitioning into the first year of preschool; primary, middle; high school; those moving to a new school, can be particularly vulnerable to stress.
It is imperative parents do an emotional check in with themselves and assess their own level of stress/anxiety as it pertains to back to school (example: implementing rules; routine; logistics). An anxious parent can unconsciously transfer their own concerns and stress onto their child.
Listen to your child's concerns and worries about a teacher or a classmate; don't brush them off. Listen to them attentively; do not interrupt; do not offer advice; do not judge. Acknowledge your child's feelings. In instances where children have difficulty labelling their emotions - name the emotion for them but ask them for confirmation. Validate their feelings (I know or I can imagine that must have been difficult). Don't ask direct questions to elicit a verbal or emotional response. Make conversations about school casual and fluid.
Before school starts, I always encourage parents of anxious students to contact and set up a meeting with the child's new teacher a few days before school starts. Teachers are usually in school a week before school starts prepping for the new term. So this is an ideal time for parents and the child to meet their new teacher. This personal time it is critical as it not only enables the teacher to understand the child's needs and strengthens but it also fosters a sense of rapport between the teacher and the child. This is critical in helping de escalate a child's sense of anxiety. In addition to visiting the teacher, I encourage parents to take as many photos of the classroom and campus as possible. When possible to take a photo of the class' daily schedule. Parents can later review these photos with their children. Visit the school several times - set up a challenge each time - for example the first challenge could be instructing your child to step out of your parked car; or spending a few moments with their new teacher in the classroom without you. To an anxious child - knowledge is power. The unknown can be extremely frightening.
3)Arrange a Hand off
As a school counselor dealing with anxious children, I frequently act as the intimidaory between the parent and the classroom. In collaboration with both parents and the child's teacher I arrange to make myself available during morning morning drop off. I greet the child at the gates and as per my arrangement with the teacher and parents; I assess their level of anxiety and either drop them off immediately in the class or allow them to spend 10 minutes in my office with me - where we work on coping mechanisms to de escalate their sense of anxiety. In schools, where a school counselor is not available - speak to your child's teacher about the possibility of having his/her teaching assistant greet you at the door. The person you arrange to meet your child during morning drop offs should be someone the child is familiar with and trusts. Please note: any person who is not a qualified mental health practitioner should not bring up the topic of the child's anxiety. Rather, they should bring them to class and distract them with another activity.
Offer specific praise for brave behavior : " well done on coming to school today. I look forward to hearing about something interesting you learned/something fun you did at school today.
For every negative experience your child vocalises about school; encourage them to think of 3 things that went well. This helps breaks the negative cycle (negative thoughts --> negative feelings --> negative actions/behaviors)