Why does one child get excited about starting the school year while another feels debilitating anxiety?
It is rarely one thing and is usually a combination of factors, including the child’s temperament and self-confidence; your past experiences at school, daycare, or daycare; friendships they’ve already formed; and the types of transition activities they undertook.
As psychologists and mental health researchers, we also look at how the family is coping and the child’s past mental health history or developmental disability diagnoses.
The good news is that research shows that parents, schools and health professionals can intervene early to support children who are anxious about school.
Our research team developed a program called AllPlay Learn to support children with disabilities, who are at greater risk of experiencing anxiety at school due to the added burden of new routines, friendships, expectations and “sensory overload” (where noise, clutter, smells and other sensory information from the classroom or playground becomes overwhelming and distressing for a child).
These strategies can help all children, parents and teachers to better cope with the transition to school or the return after the holidays.
What is back to school anxiety like?
Anxiety in children is not always easy to detect. Symptoms can range from very subtle changes in body language to challenging behaviors such as anger and acting out.
However, avoidant behavior is a hallmark of anxious children. Everyone can relate to what makes us comfortable — being at home, engaging in things we enjoy and are good at, and avoiding what makes us anxious or overwhelmed.
At its extreme, anxious-avoidant behavior toward school can turn into school refusal, where a student regularly misses school with their parents’ knowledge due to school-related emotional distress.
4 Ways Parents Can Support Their Anxious Children
How parents communicate about the new school year is important. Talking positively about school and learning can reduce feelings of anxiety in children.
Parents can help children feel prepared and develop strategies for dealing with anxious feelings:
Familiarizing them with their new school/classroom. Take your child to visit the new school or classroom, read stories about school and “play” school so he can practice the things he needs to learn, like packing.
Help them set goals. Encourage them to identify things they can already do to establish themselves in the classroom, then set small goals for what they can do next. For example: “I can say goodbye without getting upset when my mom leaves. This semester, instead of my mom walking me to class, I’m going to wave out the window.”
Developing some “soothing” supports. Ask what helped them before when they had concerns. They can practice relaxing breathing, have silent bedtime activities, practice “brave statements” (such as “I might be a little worried, but I know the teacher will be there if I need help”), or bring a special item from home.
Make sure they can relax after school. Some of the emotions your child has been holding inside all day may boil over when he returns home. Consider calming activities, spaces, or supports your child may need to process their emotions and sensory overload.
How can teachers help anxious children?
The teacher’s support is important, especially on arrival. Adaptation activities, such as choosing to read books or draw quietly, can provide the child with security.
Clearly communicating student expectations, such as class rules, can also build trust between the children and the teacher.
If a child is anxious, reflect on what aspects of school life may be contributing to feelings of anxiety and identify – with the child’s input – what the child could manage with existing supports. For example, a child may feel able to separate himself from his parents in the morning if he has a familiar toy or a picture of home and may have some quiet time in the classroom before the bell. Over time, these additional supports can be reduced.
Allow children time and space to deal with big emotions. Children may have different support preferences when they are distressed, but may find it difficult to communicate their needs when they are anxious or upset.
Provide structure and predictability. Visual schedules, social narratives (stories that tell children what they can expect at school), and transitional prompts can provide reassurance. Knowing what to do and who to play with can be a challenge for a child who is feeling anxious, especially during unstructured school hours such as lunchtime.
What if your child continues to be anxious about school?
Some children may show significant signs of anxiety, such as lack of sleep, social withdrawal, changes in eating habits, or ongoing and significant distress or unhappiness.
When children experience significant and ongoing signs of anxiety that do not resolve, some additional support may be needed to ensure your child’s well-being and sense of security at school.
Speak to your GP, who can rule out underlying medical factors and refer you to appropriate support services, such as a child and adolescent psychologist.
More evidence-based tips for supporting an anxious child about the start of the school year are available on the AllPlay Learn website. Other useful resources include the Australian Psychological Society’s referral service, Kids Helpline and Beyond Blue.
Provided by The Conversation
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