Managing New School Year Apprehensions
By: Susan McKeown
Whether a rising freshman entering a new high school, a rising 6th grader faced with the middle school ‘butterflies’ or a little one entering Kindergarten, both students and parents face a wave of apprehension on that first day.
Back to school jitters can ignite anxiety at varying levels not just for the student but for parents as well. These emotions can stem from a number of things: COVID-19 concerns, friendship issues, social apprehensions stemming from seeing old friends for the first time in a while, or simply realizing you are moving from being a couch potato to sitting in a loud and busy classroom. After two years of COVID education, it is understandable that many students are experiencing nerves as the new year begins. Even outside of the pandemic woes, going to kindergarten, 6th grade, 9th grade, or entering a new school are naturally nerve-wrecking. It is normal for parents to notice some discomfort and worry in the first few weeks of school.
As we are getting settled into this school year, what are some signs that we can look for to determine if children are struggling? This may vary depending on the age of the child. For example, your kindergartener may be more tearful, or they may become more clingy. An older student may become more oppositional, irritable, staying secluded in their rooms, or they may even develop physiological symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches from apprehension or even just getting back into a routine. This will affect their energy levels as well as their moods and can, ultimately, affect their grades.
What are the best ways to manage and support your child? There are proactive steps that can be done in the early weeks of school in order to help your child navigate and have a successful year. First, try to engage your child in conversation about their school, their classmates, and perhaps, their fears. This will help them realize they are getting support from you, which is important when they do face challenges. Another way to engage is to have your children go with you to purchase their school supplies or their ‘first day of school’ outfit. For younger students, it may be helpful to get them ready for being away from parents by explaining to them that school is a fun and engaging place as well as encouraging independent play while they are still at home to provide them with more confidence. Especially in older students who participate in sports or other non-academic activities, schedules can be tricky as we get back to our school routines and can certainly be the cause of stress. Undoubtedly, students of all ages have been up later during the summer night, enjoying non-academic experiences, trips, or special occasions. Trying to establish a nightly routine, where possible, can be a great way to ease some of the attitude parents may see with tiredness and new homework load.
When a parent starts to see their child showing anxious behaviors that seem to be centered around school, what can we do? Recognizing and accepting that your child has these feelings is the first step. When our children are upset, a parent's first reaction is to remove the cause. With school related issues, that is much harder to do. Developing a dialogue with your child is key. Allowing them to share their concerns with you with you acknowledging their feelings, even when you don’t necessarily agree, are important. Engage them in a plan that they think will help them feel better about the situation. For example if a child has expressed anxious feelings and is now refusing to go to school, ask them what you can do to make it better while also helping them realize that ultimately, they need to go to school. The goal is to try to help the child feel more in control while being less afraid and anxious. Coping with their fears and worries will help them see that they can be successful and develop more confidence in their school journey. For many students, building their confidence will be a critical tool they need for success.
What about the anxiety of being a parent or guardian of a student? It is also important for parents to navigate their own anxiety and stress when it comes to starting back to school. As parents, we have all been there: coming off a great summer of relaxing; no alarms; no sibling bickering; no morning scramble trying to get out the door; and then, you wake up a few days before school with that realization that school starts in 4 days. You are definitely not ready. You can curb some of your anxiety by getting involved with the school, organizing a coffee group for other guardians who may be feeling overwhelmed as well as opening a reasonable dialogue with teachers and counselors. If our children are experiencing anxiety, we need to ensure that we do not fuel those feelings with our own anxiety.
Ultimately, parents need to be a safe resource for their children. As parents, we want our children to know that they can come to us with any fears or concerns without judgment. Providing this support will enable our children to reach their potential. Are you feeling your own school-related anxieties as a parent? CES offers Holistic Parent and Family Coaching with Dr. Anna L. Patton to support you in identifying and acting on your own stress management goals. Use our Contact Us page to connect with us!