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How to Help a Child with Anxiety about School

The thought of returning to school after a long time may raise anxiety in many children. 

Anxiety is a normal and natural human emotional body response to a rapid or sudden event that triggers some hormones that unsettle the body. 

It is not only common among children but some adults also get anxious when they are faced with an unexpected situation. 

Returning to school can make a child anxious and stressed out, especially when he or she is transitioning from one class to another. 

Separation from their parents is another factor that creates anxiety in children; this makes them anxious about the unforeseen experience.  

Other factors that can raise anxiety about school in children are academic demand, peer group, crowded environment, continuous assessment, new faces, new classroom, new class teacher, and many more.

There are some children who display natural anxiousness or have anxiety disorders; children like these are believed to be the most fragile when it comes to anticipatory anxiety about school. 

 

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It is going to be easy for parents who are sensitive and very observant over their children to notice when there is a rise in anxiety in their children. For example:

  • when you notice that your child complains of body pain, stomach disorder, and headache and you are sure he or she is not sick
  • when your child takes time to come out of bed or prepare for school or try to avoid school-related activities
  • when your child asks questions of reassurance after receiving answers repeatedly about what his or her new classroom or teacher will be like.
  • When your child shows some worries about having all of his or her school resumption supplies ready or has slight trouble falling asleep in the days that precede school resumption, etc.

However, back to school anxiety experienced by children which lasts for a week is not abnormal, but parents should know the difference between normal back-to-school jitters and anxiety that warrants clinical attention. 

When you realize that the anxiety symptoms you noticed in your child persist beyond the first few weeks of resumption, then you may need to visit a consultant.

If your child is anxious about school, follow the steps listed below.

How to Help a Child with Anxiety about School

Address It Early: Pre-resumption Approach

  1. When it’s a week or two before resumption, start preparing your child for the upcoming transition by getting back to school year routines, such as time to go to bed and time to come out of bed, mealtime, selecting tomorrow’s clothing.
  2. Go to the school several times before resumption; rehearse the drop-off with your child, and if possible do as much walking the halls as you can, to locate her classroom, the lavatory, the cafeteria, the playground. Spend time on the playground or inside the classroom if the building is open. Have the child practice walking into class while you wait outside or down the hall.
  3. Stir up some excitement about school in your child by challenging him/her with a prize or a rewarding activity that the child could earn for separating from mom or dad to attend school.
  4. Present a sense of self-assurance and understanding to your child. Allow your child to explain to you what raises anxiety in him/her and listen carefully. When your child realizes that you understand how he or she is feeling, it can make a big difference. Respond with an explanation using supportive language such as “It’s normal to feel nervous”; “I see that you are anxious about your resumption”; “Like any new activity, starting school can be hard but soon becomes easy and fun. But I believe in you and will help you get through it.”

Resumption Approach

  1. For the first few days of resumption, link up your child with a friend in his/her class that you think can help your child come out of anxiety so that they can both move together to their classroom.
  2. Discuss with your child’s class teacher about your child’s anxiety. Let the teacher know what you have discovered about the child. For example, if your child is having some separation anxiety, agree on strategies to make things easier. This could include strategies like flexible start time, a buddy, and regular check-ins on progress. 
  3. Teach the self-calm approach: Come up with strategies that your child can adopt to make him or her come out of anxiety. For young children, you might suggest turning to a favourite stuffed animal for comfort or use the counting method. “Ask your child to give the anxiety a number from one to ten — or 1 to 100 — and then have him or her slowly count down from that number to zero,” Dr. Cohen says. An older kid could practice deep breathing or write his/her thoughts down on paper and then tear it up and throw it away. You can also teach your kid to use positive self-talk. For example, “I studied for the test, so I should do well,” instead of “I’m probably going to fail the test.” And, of course, let your child know he/she can come to you for help.
  4. Talk to the school’s Guidance Counsellor: Take out time to talk with the Guidance Counsellor in your child’s school. Make sure you do not hide your child’s anxiety from the counsellor; this move will make the situation easier to address as the counsellor will be able to hit the nail on the head. This kind of move will make both the child and the parent more relaxed about school. Moreover, the counsellor can always follow up on your child afterwards.
  5. You could consider talking to your employer about the situation and whether you need any reasonable adjustments. More and more employers are committing to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their employees to ensure work life balance.
  6. Gradually confront what triggers anxiety: Dr. Pincus,  an Associate Professor, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University recommends that “You can consider one of the situations that raise your child’s anxiety, then model a bravery ladder that gradually allows your child to face her fear.” She suggests breaking the process down into smaller steps, making each one a touch harder. For example, if your child’s anxiety is about attending a sleepover, a bottom step might be sleeping in a sibling’s room; a couple of steps up might be sleeping at a cousin’s house; and the very top could be going to a sleepover at a friend’s house.
  7. Know when to get help: If a child continues to show anxiety even after you have tried out all the approaches mentioned above or you feel that you can not help your child resolve his or her fears or anxiety, then it is time to meet with the paediatrician.

There are some types of anxiety that are more severe and require specialized support and treatment. It is important not to let these run on for too long without intervention, as these types of anxiety tend to persist if they are not treated.