Help Your Child With Back-to-School Anxiety and Jitters
Updated: Aug 21, 2019
Cooler mornings, pre-season football, and retailers reminding you at every turn that it's Back-to-School time...
Everyone, including teachers, feel jitters and anxiety about a new school year. I've been at it nearly a decade and am only moderately less nervous about the first day than I was fresh out of college.
Many kids look forward to seeing their friends with some ambivalence toward the return of homework, early mornings and a busy schedule. For many others, the anxiety of the new year casts a pall over the final days of summer. Fortunately, there are a few things that you can support your child with, prior to the start of the year.
Kids, especially adolescents, need a lot of sleep. The research around teens and sleep deprivation is alarming:
"Insufficient sleep has also been shown to cause difficulties in school, including disciplinary problems, sleepiness in class and poor concentration" (Carpenter, 2001).
According to recent studies, adolescents need a minimum of nine hours of sleep. Yet, as few as 15% of teens report consistently logging the bare minimum. Getting the necessary amount of sleep during the school year is challenging. It is even more difficult when kids have been sleeping well into the morning and staying up until the wee hours of the morning during the summer.
Take action now, so that the alarm clock at the crack of dawn isn't such a rude awakening. Gradually move your child's wake-up time earlier and earlier until you're in sync with the school year's schedule. This is especially important for those with heightened anxiety about the approaching year:
Excessive sleepiness not only affects your physical health, it has a big impact on your mental health as well. When you don't get the 7-9 hours of quality sleep you need, it can heavily influence your outlook on life, energy level, motivation, and emotions (National Sleep Foundation, 2019).
Annoying your child by dragging them out of bed in the waning days of summer is a worthwhile struggle. It will pay dividends when the alarm goes off during the school year and your kid goes off to school with the cognitive and physical energy to take on the day. When a student is having a particularly challenging day, one of my first questions is always, "How'd you sleep last night?" Without exception, the response is "I didn't" or "not well."
2. Create Familiarity
Familiarity with people, environment and expectations will go a long way towards putting your child at ease. The unknown is scary, especially for a child whose psychology often leads them to anticipate every possible contingency. Here are some tips:
Get acquainted with their classroom(s). What does it look like? What are the seating arrangements? For primary students, take note of where your child's backpack and other supplies will be stored.
Walk your child's schedule and practice opening his/her locker. A lot of secondary students are anxious about being late to the next class, struggling with their locker, and getting lost. Challenge your child to navigate it on their own or bring a friend. Do it over...and over...and over...
Meet your teacher(s) ahead of time. I always welcome the chance to meet with a student before the year begins. Teachers are often in their classrooms preparing for the year. Allaying kids’ fears and making them more comfortable is tremendously important to us! A simple email to line up your calendars is all it will take. Trust me, you're not imposing!
Make connections. Do your very best to identify acquaintances and friends that share your child's class(es). Just one familiar face can be enough to put them at ease.
Use the School's Resources. If your child is starting at a new school or has difficulties opening up and making friends, give your school a call. Guidance counselors can work magic behind the scenes. They are often responsible for enrolling new students and setting up schedules for transfers. In short, they know everyone. They can set your child up with another new student or a child who is having similar challenges making friends. They can also help facilitate productive table groups at lunch, discreetly.
3. Make Sure Your Child is Prepared
Most teachers spend the first few days of school setting up procedures and expectations. Send your child to school prepared! Having all of the supplies and school materials will ensure that they are academically and socially set-up for success. Many anxious kids feel like a spotlight (oftentimes a judgmental one!) is always on them. The last thing they need is to stand out for having to borrow supplies etc.
If your school's supply list is overwhelming or burdensome financially, reach out! Don't fret alone. Contact your child's teacher and explain your concern. It can very easily be remedied. I have taught with many different grade levels and teams. All of them had a "contingency plan" for this situation: extra supplies from previous years, donations from local organizations, a fund set aside, etc. It may be difficult to make that phone call or send that email, but teachers just want your child to be set-up for success.
Similarly, many schools have required summer reading. Make sure your child has finished the book(s). Every year I witness several students try to "fake" their way through summer reading discussions and activities. This is an easily avoided situation.
4. Review and Rehearse Coping Strategies and Scripts
If your child suffers from a diagnosed anxiety disorder, chances are they have a toolbox of coping strategies. The final days of summer is the perfect time to review and practice them. Run through social stories and scripts for specific situations. ALL students can benefit from mentally playing out the following scenarios:
Your locker is jammed. What do you do?
You can't find your next class, where do you go?
Your teacher is playing icebreaker games and you are on the verge of a panic attack. How do you manage it?
You can't find a seat at lunch. What do you do?
There are hundreds of books written on this topic. A quick Google search will provide you with a starting point for coping strategies. I find Freeing Your Child From Anxiety: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life--From Toddlers to Teens and Anxiety Relief for Kids to be excellent starting points.
With some thoughtful planning and work in these final days of summer, you can help set your child up for a relatively stress-free and successful start to the school year!
What other strategies work for all of you out there?