As summer draws to a close, many parents are eagerly looking ahead to the return of school-year routines. Their kids might not be quite so enthusiastic.
“Most kids look forward to going back to school, but there are a fair number for whom it creates angst,” says Mass General Brigham psychiatrist Khadijah Booth Watkins, MD, MPH. She’s also associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, an online educational resource that promotes mental, emotional, and behavioral well-being for young people.
The first day back doesn’t have to be something to dread. Dr. Booth Watkins shares her tips for helping a child with anxiety about school.
Some young kids are good at expressing themselves with words. They can speak up when they’re worried and explain why. Many young children, though, haven’t mastered talking about feelings. They might not be able to tell a parent when they’re worried about school—in fact, they might not even realize what it is that’s making them feel anxious.
Luckily, parents and caregivers can usually spot clues that something is on a child’s mind. “The signs can vary, but you’ll probably notice changes in the child’s behavior,” Dr. Booth Watkins says. As summer winds down and the first day of school approaches, a nervous child might show signs such as:
If you notice these signs when fall is in the air, back-to-school anxiety could be to blame.
If your child seems worried about starting a new school year, there are a number of ways you can help.
It’s natural to want everything to be perfect for your child—and it’s easy to get stressed if they’re stressed. But if you’re anxious, odds are good that your kids will feel it. “Check your own feelings so they don’t spill over onto your kids,” Dr. Booth Watkins says.
Look for ways to manage your anxiety:
“It’s okay to take a time-out so you can ground yourself. Then you’ll be better equipped to help your child manage their own anxiety,” she adds.
Daily schedules often loosen up in the summer, but kids thrive on routine. A few weeks before school starts, try to get back on track with regular times for going to bed, waking up, and eating, Dr. Booth Watkins says. Creating that sense of structure and predictability can help kids feel more in control.
Ask your kids how they’re feeling about the new school year—but keep it casual. “No kid wants to be called for a long family meeting,” Dr. Booth Watkins says. Instead, ask casual, open-ended questions about their thoughts and feelings when you’re taking a walk or riding in the car. Try to get a sense of the specific worries on their mind. After all, you can’t provide reassurance if you don’t know what they’re thinking. Are they nervous about having a new teacher? Afraid they won’t know how to find the school bathroom? Ask, “What are you concerned about?” Dr. Booth Watkins recommends.
“Once you know what specific things they’re worried about, you can give them some validation and troubleshoot the challenges,” she adds. “Having a game plan can help.”
Many schools offer back-to-school events where families can meet teachers, check out classrooms, and tour the school ahead of time. Take advantage of those opportunities so things feel a little more familiar on the first day. If your child has a friend who goes to the same school, schedule an informal playdate a few days before school starts so they can reconnect.
If you have a kid who needs time to warm up to school, let the teachers know, Dr. Booth Watkins suggests. Kids are most successful at school when parents and teachers work together as a team, she adds. “If you think the first day might be difficult, bring the teacher into the conversation. They’ve probably been through some variation of this many times before, and they’ll be able to help.” It’s also helpful to establish relationships with the teachers, counselors, and school nurses early on.
Check off as many tasks as you can the night before school starts. Have your child take a bath, lay out clothes, pack a lunch, and load up their backpack. The next morning, you might make a special breakfast or play an upbeat morning playlist before heading to school. “Make it fun, keep it light, and make sure you allow for enough time, so you don’t have to rush,” Dr. Booth Watkins suggests.
While some kids might feel more relaxed if they can see their classroom ahead of time, others might get even more anxious if you make a special trip to the school. “You know your kid,” Dr. Booth Watkins says. Think about the types of things that have made your child feel anxious or secure in the past, and do what works for your family.
For most kids, back-to-school jitters ease up after the first few days or weeks, and parent support is enough to help kids through new school year transitions. If your child still seems to struggle as the school year gets underway, it’s a good idea to dig deeper to understand the cause of their anxiety.
Untreated anxiety about school can lead to school refusal, when a child can’t get to school, can’t stay in school for the whole day, or is unable to remain in the classroom. Many things can lead kids to avoid school, including:
“There are a lot of things we should consider when a child struggles,” Dr. Booth Watkins says. “If they’re suffering, talk to teachers and school staff. As a team, you can decide when it’s time to evaluate a child so you can treat the source of their distress,” she adds.
Of course, younger kids aren’t the only ones who experience back-to-school anxiety. The Clay Center also provides helpful resources for parents of adolescents.