Back to school is an exciting time for many children; but for others it can be unnerving, and a time for anxiety rather than anticipation. Adjusting to a new routine or a new teacher, the pressure to make new friends, and having to take part in social situations that can be intimidating are among sources of stress for many students.
These feelings are normal for children who become anxious when faced with change; but Dr. Susan Baer, a psychiatrist at the Mood and Anxiety Disorders clinic at BC Children’s Hospital, says there are ways parents, caregivers, and educators can help ease the back-to-school transition.
Kindergarten can be a stressful time for children, particularly those who have not been in a pre-school situation, she says. “A lot of children can have difficulty with that transition. This is normal, as it’s a new experience. Once a child gets into a routine then he or she is better able to tolerate saying goodbye.”
She adds that the school can be a very good partner. “It helps if there is someone the child is handed off to. That way the child feels safe because she knows the person, and that transition is very helpful.”
Making the transition to a new school can also be difficult. “It can help if parents walk the school hallways with their child, and figure out how drop-off and pick-up before and after school will look.” Students might have a very specific fear, such as where they will go for lunch and what they will do if their friends aren’t there.
“Sit with your child and do some problem-solving, to create a plan so that they can handle the situation. And let children know that they can talk to you, and that you’ll really listen to what they’re worried about.”
Another strategy is to shift the focus toward positive things. “Ask your child what they’re looking forward to about being back in school, and talk about interesting clubs they can get involved with. Some children really like the increased freedom of middle school and high school, where they have more choice. Parents can stress these interesting and exciting changes.”
Other ways parents and caregivers can help is by providing regular routines before and after school; holding realistic expectations that are right for your child’s age; asking your child if they have ideas about or solutions for a particular concern; and remaining calm when your child is anxious.
“Parents should model brave behaviour, and not project their fears,” advises Baer. “Tell your child you’re confident they’ll be okay with this, that you think they can handle it. And strike a balance between listening and acknowledging their fears and anxieties.”