How to soothe school anxiety

  • Article by: G.J. OLSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2013 - 10:33 AM

As the countdown gets closer to the first day of school, your child may show apprehension in many ways.

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300 dpi 3 col x 9 in / 146x229 mm / 497x778 pixels Jim Atherton color illustration of a girl's isolation and anxiety about attending her new school. Fort Worth Star-Telegram 2005

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Photo: Jim Atherton • Fort Worth Star-Telegram,

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The first day of school is right around the corner, and that means big changes for families with children.

Change is often uncomfortable for kids, but parents can make it less so by using the end of August as a time to wind summer down gradually and gently. This is not the time to squeeze a vacation and all of the school shopping into the very last weekend. Experts suggest spending some low-key time together where you can keep communication open so your children can voice their concerns.

Fear of the unknown is a common cause of back-to-school anxiety. It may be a new school system or a new school within the district. The leap to middle school or high school can be tricky, as is the transition from third to fourth grade. Kindergarten is a big deal, of course, often more for parents than kids these days as most schools have special programs or activities to ease children into school.

Familiarity is the best aid for the unknown. Consider visits, tours or even a picnic on the playground. Attend the open house usually held right before the first day.

Peer comfort

Social worries may top the list of concerns, especially for shy kids, who may wonder, “Will my best friend be in my class?”

“Social media provides a lot more opportunities for young people to stay connected,” said Yvonne Gentzler, associate professor of family, youth and community at the University of Minnesota. “But it’s not easy for all students to return to school feeling totally comfortable and ready for all the transitions they are about to face.”

While some schools will provide a class list ahead of time, elementary teachers note that new friendships form before the first day is over. In middle and high school, with many more classes, kids are sure to run into a friend or two. Point out to your children the advantages and opportunities that come from new friendships, and remind them of past social situations where they were successful.

Academic worries may bother older children or adolescents, and can be self- or parent-imposed. Some children may wonder, “If I had a good year last year, will I measure up?” For others, it may be, “If last year was tough, will I do better, or worse?”

One way to help your kids establish a good approach is by being organized and having a reassuring routine at home. This includes a time and place for homework, along with consistent times for meals, bedtime and nonschool activities.

Although getting to know a new teacher may make your child nervous, meeting that instructor before the first day can help. Remind your child to be open-minded and respectful; it takes time for relationships to develop.

Beyond the school walls

Maybe stress is not caused by school at all. Is there a grouchy bus driver or a playground bully? Lunchtime issues? Students have been known to be embarrassed to take the “free” bag lunch when their overdue account is not paid, or they may find the lunchroom commotion so disconcerting they cannot eat. If any of these are issues, let the teacher know.

Separation anxiety may bother younger students. Psychologist Gretchen Lewis-Snyder of Blossom Child Psychology and Behavioral Health Center in Minnetonka notes that children have many ways of showing their nervousness: saying they are scared or “don’t want to,” asking a lot of questions or repeating the questions, whining or clinging to a caregiver, having stomachaches or headaches or even arguing, yelling or becoming defiant.

Most children adjust to a new school year in less than a month, so be alert for any lingering anxiety. Lewis-Snyder pointed out, “If children experience anxiety, worry or fear that persists longer than a few weeks, interferes with day-to-day functioning and/or seems to be causing significant personal distress more days than not, parents may want to talk with a mental health professional. School counselors, school social workers or school psychologists may also be helpful.”

 

G.J. Olson is a retired teacher and freelance writer from Fari­bault, Minn.

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