Beating the back to school blues

After almost two months of relaxing, going to camp and hanging out with friends, most kids probably do not look forward to the end of summer vacation.

For some children, however, the thought of returning to the classroom results in intense anxiety that can even cause physical symptoms.

According to educational psychologist and learning consultant Dr. Louise Malcolm, in small amounts, anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing.

“This phenomenon is part of the developmental process and in reasonable amounts, can motivate a child to achieve a particular goal,” she said. “[But] anxiety can escalate and can become a troubled desire or a worry.”

Back to school anxiety typically begins in the weeks before school starts and ends within the first month of school, making it distinct from more general forms of anxiety, which last longer.

Mrs. Malcolm says children may feel nervous about going back to school for a number of reasons, including teacher expectations, meeting new friends, academic demands and bullying, but there are steps parents can take to help their children get over fears of returning to the classroom.

The roots of anxiety

Mrs. Malcolm has seen cases of back to school anxiety in students of all ages, but said the reasons behind children’s anxiousness change as they age.

For younger children, transitions in grade levels or physical locations were among the main causes of anxiety.

“In my experience, this is quite common among children who are entering Year One for the first time, the young child who is transferring to a new geographic location on-island … or the child who is transferring to a new environment and having to cope with a new culture including the classroom or school’s culture,” Mrs. Malcolm said.

While older children may experience anxiety when transitioning into high school, most back to school anxiety in teenagers results from social pressures.

“In the case of older children among the common causes [are] … peer pressure about dress, including brand name footwear, brand name school bag, hair cut, [and] hair style,” Mrs. Malcolm said.

Symptoms of anxiety

Though physical symptoms of back to school anxiety can vary from child to child, Mrs. Malcolm recommends parents pay attention to any changes in their child’s behaviour.

“A symptom that did not exist previously, and is now worrying your child, especially in the mornings, provides the red flag that your child has back-to-school anxiety,” she said.

According to Mrs. Malcolm, these symptoms can include: stomach aches, head aches, sore throat, bed-wetting, dizziness, nausea and muscle ache.

“And for children in the early years and even Year One, symptoms include thumb sucking, bathroom accidents and reverting to baby talk,” she said.

Parents should note that, even if their child does not experience all of the symptoms listed, back to school anxiety should not be ignored or disregarded.

“Any one sign is cause for concern and should be addressed,” said Mrs. Malcolm.

What parents can do

Although parents cannot physically be with their children during the school day, there are still steps parents and guardians can take to reduce back to school anxiety.

“Once a parent observes any of the symptoms mentioned, or any other unusual symptoms, then the parent should initiate a conversation and talk with the child about what is bothering him or her,” Mrs. Malcolm said.

Even though the reasons behind a child’s stress may seem trivial to an adult, Mrs. Malcolm warns against dismissing the cause as frivolous.

“Listen to the child’s feelings; do not brush it aside as unimportant,” she said. “Let your child know that you understand how he or she is feeling.”

Sharing similar personal experiences from their youth is one way that parents can relate to the stress their child is facing.

“Reassure your child that he or she is not alone,” Mrs. Malcolm said.

Even though parents should sympathise with their child, Mrs. Malcolm said parents should not start a cycle of “co-op therapy”.

“[If your] child is not feeling well and suggests that he or she would like the day off from school, do not agree,” she said. “Instead stress the importance of schooling.”

Parents can also start to prepare their children for the transition back into school over the summer.

“If feasible, attend nonschool activities held at the school, for example: vacation Bible school or camp,” Mrs. Malcolm said.

Including children in activities like back to school shopping can also help ease anxiety.

“Purchase stuff for back to school together and make the activity fun,” Mrs. Malcolm said. “In purchasing, encourage your child to make simple decisions … [like] colour of the school bag, colour of shoes, type of lunch bag, etc.”

Parents should also not be afraid to seek the guidance of a psychologist or counsellor if their child’s back to school anxiety does not decrease.

“Anxiety for the first three to four weeks … is normal, but after this time period, a parent may want to be proactive and seek help in addressing the issue, especially if parents observe unusual behaviours such as loss of interest in activities that usually interests the child, aggression, irritability, withdrawal, and drop in grades,” Mrs. Malcolm said.

With the right support from family members and the guidance of a counsellor or psychologist, back to school anxiety will only be a temporary problem.

“Back-to-school anxiety is treatable,” Mrs. Malcolm said. “A good support system at home and school can address the problem.”

In Mrs. Malcolm’s opinion, the best remedy for back to school anxiety comes from the people in that student’s life, not from a bottle of pills.

“Some psychologists may suggest medical intervention,” Mrs. Malcolm said, “but, in my experience, ongoing treatment should be the method of choice for students.”

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