The Back-To-School Jitters
It’s time…here come the back-to-school jitters….
Most kids, to some degree or another, feel nervous about the first day of school.
This is a very normal feeling.
But, the back to school jitters of our anxious children can move into a whole different stratosphere…
Because those first days of school are chock-full of uncertainty.
And anxiety hates uncertainty.
While below I have provided a list of concrete hands-on tips for easing back-to-school anxiety, I encourage you to never lose sight of my number one suggestion for school or any type of anxiety…
Which is to help your child make peace with uncertainty!
The Invasion of the “What If?” Worries
Is your child’s back-to-school anxiety fueled by a symphony of “what if” worries that pulsate like neon signs in their brain?...
And take on a menacing tone as if the Jaw’s soundtrack is stuck on repeat in their mind?
The “what ifs” of a child with social worries might sound like…
What if…I don’t have any friends in my class?
What if…no one wants to talk to me/play with me at recess?
What if…others don’t like what I’m wearing?
What if…I say or do something stupid?
The “what ifs” of a child with separation worries might sound like…
What if…something bad happens to my mom* while I’m at school?
What if…something bad happens to me and mom’s not here to help?
What if…mom forgets to pick me up?
What if…it’s just too hard to leave mom?
*Or dad or another primary caregiver
.Or for our equal opportunity worriers…
What if…the school work is too hard?
What if…everyone’s smarter than me?
What if…the teacher is mean?
What if…someone bullies me at recess? .
Or a medley of other things.
The subject of these “what if” worries are almost beside the point because…
Worry operates in the same redundant way…no matter what the worry!
Anticipatory Anxiety the Worst Kind
Once August hits, with commercialization in full swing, the back-to-school buzz will reach most every kid’s radar.
So, as our anxious children start to anticipate, their worry can kick in strong.
So, how can we help our anxious kids better navigate and manage their back-to-school anxiety?
12 Ideas to Help with Back-To-School Anxiety
1. Normalize Your Child’s Back-to-School Anxiety
The very first thing we can do is normalize our child’s back-to-school worry.
Anxious children often think that others don’t have worried feelings like they do.
This is because kids don’t normally share these types of feelings with each other.
It’s comforting for children to know that other kids are feeling the same way they are.
Without this knowledge, a child experiences a feeling of isolation, which can easily convert to shame.
And shame makes anxiety spike.
We can say to our child something along the lines of:
“Of course you’re going to have worry feelings about the beginning of a new school year. Almost every kid does…even the kids who don’t seem nervous at all. I remember how nervous I used to feel. And my best-friend, who always seemed so confident…well, I remember she would spend hours deliberating about what she was going to wear on that first day back. And another friend always got a stomach ache that first day or two or three. So, while it’s normal to feel nervous, would you like some help thinking of some ways that we might be able to make it feel a bit easier?”
2. Have a Calm and Positive Attitude about Back-to-School
As parents, we want to transmit a relaxed and positive attitude toward school and all the back-to-school proceedings.
As you are probably well aware, our anxious children our especially sensitive to our moods and attitudes.
So, if we have an anxious or negative attitude, our child will soak it up.
Our children look to us as their barometers to how they should feel.
Now, that does not mean that just because we appear to be cool, calm, and collected, our child will be.
But, it does mean that we won’t amp up our child’s existing apprehension.
And for a positivity boost, it can help to share stories about your favorite school experiences.
If you can't think of any, be creative!
And if your child has previously been to school, remind them of their past positive experiences.
3. Familiarize or Re-familiarize your Child with the School Environment
Here are a variety of ways you can do that:
Meet the teacher and staff beforehand
Before school begins, take your child to their school to interact with their teacher and other school faculty.
Just drop in for a few minutes to say hello and ask about their summer.
You might want to call the school in advance and explain that your child would like to drop in just for a few minutes to chat with her teacher to help calm her back-to-school jitters.
Hang out on School Grounds
Many schools keep their playgrounds open.
If this is the case with your school, take your child to the playground in the weeks leading up to the first day back.
If you can, bring a friend from the school to join.
It’s possible that other families might be doing this as well.
And if so, that would provide a great opportunity for your child to mingle with other children from the school and for you to meet other parents.
While your child meets their teacher, take a picture of them together.
And take pictures of your child’s classroom and other areas that your child will be regularly traversing.
While outside, take pictures of the building, the playground, and other common areas.
Put the pictures on your refrigerator or in another prominent place.
By the time the first day rolls around, your child’s teacher will have become a familiar face.
And your child will have grown accustomed to seeing the school environment.
4. Create a Back-to-School Book with your Child
For younger children, you can make a back-to-school book, a social story of sorts, with your child as the star.
You may illustrate the book with the pictures you took at school and/or drawings.
And in the book, include concrete ideas to help your child manage their worry, such as the ones here, and/or others you and your child think up.
And for all ages, you can…
5. Create Funny School Stories Together
You could call these stories Silly School Tales or a funny name you and your child come up with.
The story could feature your child, other students, school-staff.
You could also invent some silly or whimsical characters.
How about a character that makes silly mistake after silly mistake?
Or the opposite kid who always says the opposite of whatever is expected: when people say hello, he says goodbye. When people say goodbye, he says hello.
Or for small children, what about some animal classmates…Cleo the Clumsy Cat? Sara, the Sassy Squirrel?
Fun and silliness is the antithesis of worry and anxiety…use it generously!
Mentally carrying these characters back to school will lighten your child's mood.
You could also convert the stories into your child’s favorite genres, such as adventure…mystery…sci-fi…or whatever…without losing that ever-important comedic flair.
Or weave in characters from your child’s favorite books or programs.
You might also incorporate, in the guise of other characters, your child’s struggle points and ways to better manage them.
You’re only limited by you and your child’s imagination.
6. Read Books about Going to School
This suggestion is aimed toward our younger first-time students.
There are an abundance of highly rated books on the market (or in your library) that paint a positive picture of what starting and going to school is like.
While reading with your child, engage with the material…beyond the written words.
Look at the pictures, what’s in the classroom? What is each student doing? And how might they be feeling?
Often when asked such questions, children will transfer their own feelings onto the characters.
Note your child’s reaction and what they seem to focus on and engage with them around that.
7. Play School
For younger children who enjoy playing pretend, play school.
Children work out their feelings (both negative and positive) through play.
Let your child take the lead.
And this could provide a window into how your child is feeling about school.
8. Let Your Child Choose Their New School Supplies
Let your child select their school supplies.
Children often get very excited about their new supplies, especially if they have the freedom to select their favorite colors, designs, and characters.
Of course, sometimes their choice must be limited based on your family budget and such.
Dollar stores can help in this regard.
But, do try to incorporate as much choice as possible.
9. Bring a Piece of Home to School
This one can be especially helpful for young children, first timers, and those who struggle with separation.
Having your child bring something to school that will connect them with you and home can ease their transition.
We want to convey the message that even though we are physically apart, we are always connected.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Write your child a note that she can take out and read. This can be a love note, a funny note, an interesting note, or any type or combination that would connect with your particular child.
Affix a piece of material with a scent that reminds your child of you to the inside of their shirt.
Take (or draw) a picture of you and your child and then cut it in half. Your child takes the side with you in it to school. And you keep the side with your child.
Alternatively, your child could bring an intact picture of the two of you, the whole family, or whatever configuration they choose.
Wear or carry something that you made together, like a piece of jewelry, a trinket, or a drawing.
Exchange something that belongs to each of you to wear or hold.
Carry a familiar/comforting object in their pocket, such as a small animal or other figure, or something soothing like a polished stone or a mini squeezy.
10. Go to School on the First Day with a Friend*
Join forces with another family.
Pile in one car (bus or walk) and go to school together the first day.
Or if not that, meet in the parking lot or at the front door before walking in.
We all know that scary things are often less scary when we can do them with a friend.
I mean how many of us think it’s fun to ride a roller coaster alone or watch a horror movie?
*Some children would prefer to spend the time alone with you and/or their siblings.
11. Do a Dry Run of the School Routine before School Begins
One of the most challenging aspects of going back-to-school can be readjusting to a very different schedule and routine.
Our children may have grown accustomed to later bedtimes, more leisurely wake-ups, a slower pace, and increased freedom.
And when all these things suddenly change, it can be very jarring to the body and mind (both ours and our children’s).
So, it can be helpful to ease our kids into the new school-year rhythm gradually.
We can first do this by returning to the school-year sleep schedule.
About two weeks before school begins, start moving the bedtime/wake-up time back by ten-minutes until it coincides with the school sleep schedule.
Then a couple days prior to school starting, treat morning and nighttime as though they are real school days…like actors doing a dress rehearsal.
Allot the exact getting ready time that you will need on real school days.
I know this sounds a little crazy, but it really helps!
12. Provide Social Icebreakers
This one is especially targeted towards our children with shy behavior or those who tend to be socially awkward.
These kids are especially prone to embarrassment, so first normalize
“A lot of kids need a little help figuring out what to say to other kids, especially kids they don’t know well or haven’t seen for a while.”
Then ask, “Do you have any suggestions?”
If it looks like they might need some help, chime in, “What do you think about…”
Then include some ideas on introductions, conversation starters, ways to keep a conversation rolling, and entering play/conversations:
“Hi Marcus, what did you do over the summer?”
“Hi, my name is Elisa. Are you new to the school?
“I like your shoes. Where did you get them? I’d love to get some like that.”
“I like your tower. Want to build something together?”
Of course, the wording/ideas will vary according to your child’s age
For the younger set, you can use puppets, dolls, or stuffed animals to try the ideas out.
Bonus Tip: Plan a post Back-to-School Celebration
Anxious kids can often focus on the negative…all the scary potentialities…the things that could go way wrong…and so forth.
So, it is important to infuse some festivity into the proceedings.
And you can do this by planning and orchestrating a post back-to-school celebration.
Even if your child is not exactly celebrating the return to school, that’s okay... they can celebrate the celebration you’re going to have once school begins.
Together you can choose to do something that your child absolutely LOVES to do.
Perhaps a small celebratory activity after school every day for the first week (ice-cream anyone?) or one bigger celebratory activity at the end of the week.
Just make sure your child is a key member of the Celebration Planning Committee.
my Well Wishes for your Family's back-to-school
I hope some of those ideas got your creative juices flowing.
You can adapt or adjust them based on your child’s age, personality, and interests, and the needs of your family.
I wish your family a smooth transition, an awesome teacher, some compatible friends, and lots of room to stretch and grow in the upcoming school year!
Helping Anxious Kids is here to support your family. If you are seeking anxiety treatment for your child and my approach resonates with you, schedule an appointment today.