How To Counter Back-To-School Anxiety – NPR
The start of the school year can be rough on some kids. It’s a big shift from summer’s freedom and lack of structure to the measured routines of school. And sometimes that can build up into tears, losing sleep, outbursts and other classic signs of anxiety.
“Going back to school is a transition for everyone,” says Lynn Bufka, a practicing psychologist who also works at the American Psychological Association. “No matter the age of the child, or if they’ve been to school before.”
In the vast majority of cases, this is pretty standard stuff. It doesn’t mean it’s not painful — for you and your kids. Just watch this viral video — (Andrew is now in first grade and doing fine).
“If you see that in your kids, don’t panic,” says John Kelly, a school psychologist in Long Island, N.Y. “For most kids, there’s gonna be some level of anxiety.”
And, if you think back on it, you can probably remember feeling that way, too.
We talked to some experts about what parents can do to ease the transition — plus, what to watch out for if there’s a more serious problem.
Here’s their list of tips:
Listen to your kid
Be available, says Lynn Bufka. If children have questions about school, or, once school starts, something exciting happens during the day, parents should make time to listen. Sharing the excitement can help ease concerns.
Tune into what your kids are talking about. “Emotionally, parents are the safe place for children to experience emotions and to help them develop the language around expressing emotions,” says Bufka.
Beyond listening in general, drill down to the specifics. “It’s important for parents to explore with their kids what they’re feeling anxious about,” says Bufka.
If parents know what, exactly, is making students nervous — friends, classes, a new teacher — they can help problem-solve.
Let kids be the experts
Eleanor Mackey, a psychologist with Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., suggests asking kids what might make them feel better.
“Let them generate solutions,” she says, “Ask them what helps them feel better in other scary situations.”
If they need help coming up with ideas, parents can help them role-play tough situations or come up with strategies they can use in situations that make them worried.
Create a positive expectation. Talk about things your kids can look forward to in school, past experiences they’ve enjoyed. Friends or field trips are good examples.
Talk through previous triumphs
Many kids have been nervous or anxious before, so reminding them of their own successes with similar situations can help.
Try: “Remember last year, when you were feeling this way? You got through it.”
Reassuring kids that they have the tools to get through the challenge ahead, because they’ve overcome their fears in the past, can go a long way, says Lynn Bufka.
Eleanor Mackey says parents may be unsure what to say in situations like this. She offers a template:
“I understand you are scared – that’s just fine. I also know that you can manage this. Remember last year when you were so nervous but you did it and made it through and … made a great new friend, did well in Spanish, etc…”
Reach out to the teacher
“I’m surprised at how reluctant parents are to talk to the teacher,” says Mackey. “They don’t want to be that parent, or they don’t want to label their kid with issues.”
And yet, she says, teachers have consistently told her they like hearing from parents.
Educators spend a lot of time trying to figure each kid out, she explains, so if you can save them the time, why not share? Parents are, after all, the experts on their kids.
Maybe your child is scared to answer questions in front of class, or has anxiety about being put on the spot — let the teacher know. She (or he) can use that information to help design the class, or maybe there can be more small-group work instead.
Parents can also tell their kids they’ve talked to the teacher, which can lower anxiety and send the message that the adults are on their side.
Start the routine early
“It’s always helpful to practice your routines before things start,” says Bufka.
Find (and clean!) backpacks, lunch boxes, folders and other supplies. Plan ahead and get the child involved in the planning process — have them get their belongs ready, etc.