Self-help

How to Help a Child with Back-to-School Anxiety

A new school year can be exciting as students reunite with friends and jump back into extracurricular activities. For many students, however, the transition back to the classroom brings anxiety. They may worry about new teachers, a new routine, trouble with friends, homework, and other changes that come with the start of school. It can […]

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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A new school year can be exciting as students reunite with friends and jump back into extracurricular activities. For many students, however, the transition back to the classroom brings anxiety. They may worry about new teachers, a new routine, trouble with friends, homework, and other changes that come with the start of school.

It can be hard for parents and caregivers to know how to handle back to school anxiety. You may wonder how to help anxious children feel more confident. Here’s how to support the nervous student in your life as they transition from summer to school.

What Students Worry About

Many people get nervous about new or unfamiliar situations. The start of school can bring plenty of unknowns that might concern a student, such as:

Some worries are specific to certain situations. For example, a student who speaks English as a second language may worry about keeping up with classroom instructions, or fear that their teacher won’t be able to communicate with their parents. Students who have social anxiety may find interaction with others quite stressful. Children who have unstable home lives may not be able to complete homework regularly.

Adolescents, in particular, may worry about social dynamics at school, because of the developmental importance of peers at this age. High school students have the additional pressure of deciding what to do after graduation, a topic that generates its own set of unknowns.

Grow Therapy provider Michelle Coleman, LPCC, says that taking away the stigma about anxiety is an important strategy for parents and caregivers as they talk about these back-to-school jitters with their kids. She advises adults to use the word “worry” instead of “anxiety” in these discussions.

“Everyone worries,” Coleman says. “Parents should normalize that worry is OK.”

Best Ways to Overcome Back to School Anxiety

A few helpful strategies can ease kids’ anxious feelings about the first day and build their confidence for the year ahead. These strategies target many of the topics students worry about most, such as adjusting to new social dynamics and getting used to a new schedule.

1. Practice the School Routine

The first week of school will probably bring a big change to the household dynamic. Students accustomed to late bedtimes and carefree afternoons may struggle to get up early for class if you throw them into the new routine cold turkey.

Start practicing the school year rhythm a couple of weeks ahead of time. Getting enough sleep is critical to your child’s mood, so shift bedtime and wakeup time to the new schedule. Practice the morning routine, including the walk to the bus stop or the drive to the drop-off point. Also have your student practice any evening chores related to school, like planning a lunch or laying out tomorrow’s clothes.

With the morning and evening dynamic figured out, your child will have one less thing to worry about on the big day.

2. Get to Know the Environment

Sometimes, being able to picture the new classroom helps kids feel at ease. Ask the school if you and your student may visit the classroom ahead of time and meet the child’s teacher. Use this time to find other important locations such as lockers and bathrooms.

Older children and adolescents who switch classrooms throughout the day may want to scout out the path between classrooms ahead of time to ease worries about getting lost or being late.

3. Connect With Friends

If you can find out who else is in your child’s class, consider connecting with some of these kids near the end of summer. Playdates with classroom peers can be a great way to make children confident, and even excited, about the new year. For teens in middle school and high school, comparing their daily class schedule with friends ahead of time may offer similar reassurance.

4. Create a Safe Space to Talk

When it comes to addressing a child’s anxiety, try listening as a first step, says Grow Therapy provider Karina Hester.

“Start with an open space at home, a safe place where that child can come and talk and voice their concerns,” Hester says. “Be someone who they feel they can trust, so they’re not scared to come and share. Be someone who will listen genuinely.”

Kids and teens may be reluctant to talk if they think their worries will be trivialized or dismissed. It’s important to validate the seriousness of their feelings, says Hester, even for worries that seem small to parents. Forgetting a planner at home, having a minor disagreement with a friend, or having a grouchy playground monitor might feel like small inconveniences to a parent. To a child, these things can cause real feelings of distress. 

It’s best to approach your child’s worries as if you are partnering with them, not just telling them what to do. Try phrases like, “What do you need?” “Can I give you a couple of tips?” or “How can I help?” to show children that they have agency in the situation, and you are there to support them.

5. Practice Problem-Solving

When worry strikes, kids need to feel that some of the problem-solving power rests in their hands.

“Help the child to develop little contingencies [for anxious situations] to help them out, so they feel that they have an exit, they’re not stuck in that situation,” Hester says. It may be helpful to talk through specific worries with your child and help them plan how they will respond. For example, if a child worries they won’t have friends in their classroom, help them think of ways to be welcoming and friendly to other kids to form new connections. If a child worries they will get lost on the first day, help them think of adults in the school that they could go to for directions.

Even bigger anxieties, such as the potential for school violence, can be eased somewhat with small problem-solving steps. For example, you might help your child identify all the exits on the first day so they can leave quickly if needed, and come up with a communication plan so they can get in touch with you in an emergency. While you can’t control all circumstances, you can help children learn to be active participants in solutions.

6. Turn Nerves Into Excitement

If your student is nervous about the impending school year, try finding things for them to look forward to. Turn some of that nervous energy into enjoyable anticipation.

Some things kids might look forward to about school include:

Talk with your child and see what positives about the year you can identify.

7. Manage Your Own Anxiety

If you’re stressed about the school routine or anxious about how your child will handle the transition, your child may pick up on your stress. This is your chance to model positive coping strategies such as self-care and mindfulness. As you reduce your own stress and grow your confidence about the upcoming year, your student will pick up on your positivity.

Even if you’re cool as a cucumber about the approaching school year, you can use other instances of worry to model anxiety management for an anxious child.

“It may be helpful to share with your child an appropriate story of a time when you worried, and how you overcame the worry,” Coleman says. Be sure to choose a subject that won’t create additional anxiety for your student.

8. Have Grace for Everyone Involved

When kids go back to school, they will have a lot on their minds—and so will you. Students will be cognitively and socially tired at the end of the day, and the rest of the household may be struggling to adjust to the changes. It’s important to have realistic expectations for everyone during these first few weeks. Give everyone grace if patience is thin.

How Much Worry is Too Much?

For many kids, school anxiety fades as the new year gets rolling. But if the anxiety persists, you may need to consider seeking help from a trained mental health professional. Treatments such as therapy for children can help.

“If the worry is persistent and the parent has been unable to assist the child with normal coping strategies, or if a child’s worries interfere with normal everyday activities, parents should consider taking their child to a professional,” Coleman says.

Hester adds that “a good gauge is if the anxiety is interrupting any health matters. Any sleeping cycles, any feeding cycles, anything related to the presentation of that child—so if there are tremors, if there is aggression in behavior, if there are any noticeable changes in behavior like crying or stuttering.”

Avoiding the topic of school may also be another sign. If a child avoids visiting the school building, choosing school supplies, or talking about school, it could signal heightened anxiety.

If you think your child could use additional mental health support, try seeking out a therapist who can help. Use the Grow Therapy marketplace to find one in your area who accepts your insurance and specializes in treating children.

FAQs

  • Yes, it is perfectly normal to feel some worry about a new school year. Many people feel a bit anxious about new and unfamiliar experiences.

  • Some signs include sleep disturbances, increased headaches and stomachaches, feeling tired with no obvious cause, avoiding the topic of school, unusual tantrums, changes in behavior such as new aggression or crying, and asking many worried questions about the upcoming year. This is not an exhaustive list of symptoms, so if you suspect your child is experiencing anxiety, consult your pediatrician or a trained mental health professional.

  • A couple of weeks before school, start going to bed and getting up on the school schedule. Practice planning out lunches and clothes for the next day, and practice getting to the bus stop or school building. It can also be fun to shop for and organize new school supplies.

  • If anxiety is affecting a student’s health, causing a noticeable change in behavior, or causing them to avoid the topic of school, consider seeking out a trained mental health professional who has experience working with children.

  • In many cases, teachers, school administrators, tutors, coaches, and school counselors are happy to help support a child who is experiencing worry about school. If the anxiety persists or interferes with the student’s health or habits, a pediatrician and/or a mental health professional may be able to offer the help your student needs. A student may also benefit from having other family members and loved ones involved in supporting them.

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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