Combatting back-to-school anxiety

Children may experience anxiety as they prepare to return to school or enter a new one.

Anxiety, simply put, can be described as a concern or eagerness. This phenomenon is part of the developmental process and in reasonable amounts, can motivate a child to achieve a particular goal.

Anxiety can escalate and can become a troubled desire or a worry. Back-to-school anxiety usually lasts for the first month of school or less; excessive anxiety or generalised anxiety lasts for at least six months.

A child may feel anxious about going back to school for a number of reasons.

These can include environmental factors, for example, how to navigate a new and larger environment. A child who is leaving preschool for primary school or leaving primary school for a high school setting may become anxious because the environment is larger and different. Other factors include: teacher expectations; meeting new friends; academic demands; travelling on the school bus (if this will be a first-time experience); and being bullied.

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Symptoms of back to school anxiety can present in different ways. 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.

These may include: stomach ache, head ache, sore throat, bed-wetting, dizziness, nausea, muscle ache, and for children in the early years and even Year 1, thumb sucking, bathroom accidents and reverting to baby talk. There may also be emotional symptoms, such as temper tantrums, sleeping problems, nightmares and difficulty relaxing. Some children may also refuse to go to school and avoid academic and peer activities.

Any of these symptoms are cause for concern and should be addressed.

Back to school anxiety affects both older and younger students and is quite common among students transferring to a new geographic location who have to cope with a new culture, including the classroom/school culture.

Some older students are usually anxious about challenges in making the transition from primary school to high school. Additionally, they may experience peer pressure, for example, relating to brand name footwear, brand name school bag, hair cut or hair style and this can contribute to back-to-school anxiety.

Parents can help their child to cope with back to school anxiety in a variety of ways.

Once a parent observes any of the symptoms mentioned (or any other unusual symptoms), the parent should initiate a conversation and talk with the child about what is bothering him/her. Listen to the child’s feelings; do not brush them aside as unimportant. Let your child know that you understand how he or she is feeling.

Share your own back-to-school experiences with your child and reassure your child that he/she is not alone; other children are feeling the same way.

Let the child know that the feeling is normal and he/she will overcome it shortly (which usually is the case).

Set aside quality time to discuss each school day. Also ensure that your child has enough sleep and a balanced diet.

Encourage your child’s participation in extracurricular activities.

Do not become involved in cop-out therapy with your child, for example, if your child says he or she is not feeling well and suggests that he/she would like the day off from school, do not agree. Instead stress the importance of schooling.

There are also specific things that parents could do over the summer months to prepare their child to go back to school and reduce back to school anxiety.

Parents should be proactive and take the child for a visit to the new school during the summer months. Usually the principal or administrative staff is on hand to show them around.

If your child will be attending a new school, and summer school is offered, ensure that your child takes summer school.

If feasible, attend non-school activities held at the school, like vacation bible school or camp.

Meet with the teacher briefly before the school year begins if the teacher is on Island and available for a meeting.

Highlight things that make the school great, such as its physical layout, supportive environment, nice uniform, friends and/or playground.

Purchase your child’s back-to-school items together and make the activity fun. In purchasing, encourage your child to make simple decisions as long as these are consistent with the rules of the school, for example, the colour of the school bag, shoe colour, type of lunch bag, etc.

Anxiety for the first three to four weeks in this relatively small and caring environment is normal, but after this time period, a parent may want to be proactive and seek help from a psychologist 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 or a drop in grades.

Back-to-school anxiety is treatable. The treatment approach includes group and or individual therapy (group therapy can be more effective for older children). A good support system at home and school can address the problem.

Dr. Louise M. Malcolm is an educational psychologist and learning consultant based in the Cayman Islands.

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