Mention back-to-school and you’re likely to get different responses depending on what child you’re talking to. While some kids are very excited at the thought of starting a new grade, others may be filled with anxiety.Any anxiety around the new school year is a normal developmental challenge for many children who are adjusting to a new set of circumstances and a major change in their environment. New teachers, classrooms, and academic demands are just some factors that children must adapt to. Some children may fear the bully from last year or worry about not having any friends to play with at recess time.
There are several things parents can do to reduce anxiety and help their children adjust to this challenging time. When you notice that your child might be experiencing some back-to-school anxiety, encourage him or her to talk about what they’re feeling. Assure your child that these worries are normal and that their friends are having the very same thoughts. Identify specific worries and work together to come up with plans to address them. For example, if your child is worried about having friends to play with at recess or lunch, you can practice ways they can approach and get to know new kids. If they’re worried about how hard the schoolwork might be, suggest the various ways they can get help and remind them that you’ll always be there to support them.
Having periodic conversations about school early in the summer and more frequent talks as school gets closer can be very helpful. Highlight the child’s successes from the previous year, including the academic challenges they overcame and all the new friends they made. Consider making a calendar together that shows their end-of-summer activities as well as school and extra-curricular activities. Since most children are concrete in their thinking, the calendar will help them understand what’s coming.
For younger students, as well as children who are more prone to adjustment difficulties, playing on the school playground and visiting the classroom before the start of the school year can be helpful in creating familiarity. You might also want to review the yearbook or class pictures. Sometimes a school might have a booklet about the school (or can help you create one) with pictures of the various rooms, activities, and people in the school. Scheduling play dates with peers from school (and even better at the school playground) can be very reassuring and fun.
For kids who are approaching the older elementary grades or middle school, peer relations become much more important. Talk with your child about making and keeping friends, relationships with the opposite sex, and peer pressure. Discuss ways to keep the lines of communication open (and not just through text messages). Let pre-adolescents know again and again that you are unconditionally there for them and always ready to listen.
Finally, remember to get back into the school routine several days before school starts. This means adjusting to a school bedtime and ensuring good eating habits and hygiene. Develop a plan which includes where and when homework will be completed. If homework has been the source of conflict in the past, come to an agreement as to how situations will be handled in the future.
While the return of the school year can be the source of anxiety for many children and parents, the good news is that even if there is anxiety, most kids adjust and do just fine. Keep in mind that the nerves and worries children experience are normal and, in fact, when addressed can help them develop positive coping and problem-solving skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.
Dr. Daniel Klein is the director of the Child and Family Solutions Center and a fully licensed psychologist specializing in children, adolescents and families. His areas expertise include assessment and treatment of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety, depression, mood instability, adjustment issues, defiance, and school related problems. Currently, Dr. Klein writes the "Ask the Child Psychologist" blog for the Detroit News.