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Back-to-School Serenity Strategies: 7 Ways to Calm Anxious Kids

If your child is naturally shy, introverted or resistant to change, you probably won’t be surprised when back-to-school anxiety crops up a few weeks before school starts. And what if your typically fearless, hyper-social child suddenly starts to have angry outbursts or impulsive restlessness a couple of weeks before school starts? Could this be a sign of back-to-school anxiety?

Certainly. Transitions can be hard for children at any age, especially for kids who have trouble managing change. Sometimes the unknown can spark a child with a lively imagination to picture the worst. And elementary-school-aged children are growing and developing in leaps and bounds, which can often throw physical, mental and emotional behaviors into an unexpected tizzy.

Regardless of your child’s usual manner, you might do the whole family a favor by expecting the onset of school to cause some degree of anxiety in your elementary student, whether this is the first year of school or the fifth. Being proactive at the first sign of school jitters can help.

Here are seven ways to calm anxious feelings before they become overwhelming:

1. Ask about your child’s feelings. Don’t assume your child is totally fine unless they say so. And even then, ask some questions. Try to frame a variety of feelings for your child to choose from. Say things like, “When kids start school, they sometimes feel excited, nervous, anxious, scared or overwhelmed. What are you feeling?” Being able to express and describe the experience can often take the edge off. And don’t be surprised if you feel compelled to ask every day for several weeks until school settles into a familiar routine and emotions settle back down. If kids say they are “fine,” gently question them until you get a more detailed response.

2. Paint a picture. Take advantage of school tours and meet-the-teacher days to help your child know what to expect from school. Talk to your child about how nice and orderly school is. Describe how teachers and administrators are in charge, and how a scheduled routine will be followed. Make sure your child knows who to talk to if they have a problem or a concern. Assuring your child there is a plan and steady leadership in place can help them relax. If your child feels panicky, reassure them that they will quickly catch on to school routines, and then when you come to visit, they will be able to show you the ropes.

3. Keep the teacher informed. If your child is seriously struggling with anxiety beyond what might be considered first-day jitters, keep their teacher in the loop. Teachers are trained to handle every kind of situation that may come up in the classroom. And your child might respond more positively to input from other adults beyond parents. If the situation does not improve after the first-day hurdle is cleared, consider getting a school counselor involved as well. Trust the school is behind your child and express you all want your child to have a good time at school.

4. Prepare the launch pad. Your child will be comforted by tasks that prepare them for school. Resist the urge to do everything for them or try and shield them from the preparation process. Together you can gather lunch-making supplies, shop for school supplies and select school clothes. These are all nice, concrete tasks that can bring an anxious child back down to earth. Why not create a getting-ready checklist for the two of you and tick tasks off as they are completed?

5. Focus on the positive. Okay, your child is definitely nervous about school. There may be no way around it. But chances are good they are also looking forward to some aspects of school. What about seeing their friends every day? How about taking the school bus? Does your child love libraries full of books? Do what you can to prime the positive pot a bit for the first few weeks of school. Offer a special snack for school, a chance to watch a favorite show right after school or a daily call to grandma to share their adventures. ‘Express the negative and embrace the positive’ is your new motto.

6. Practice the new routine. The week before school starts is an important rehearsal time to ease into a new routine. Getting your child to bed earlier, waking them up earlier and feeding them well will get your child into the school-day mentality. Then before you send them off to play or do chores, say, “If today was a school day, it would be time to go to the bus stop” to help them envision what a typical school day will be like. Post the daily school-day schedule and go over it with them as the big day draws near.

7. Be extra calm. If you are contending with your own separation anxiety as you anticipate sending your child off to school, discuss your feelings with understanding adults out of earshot of your child. Take part in all of these suggestions as a way to settle yourself down, as well as a way of preparing your child for school. Remind yourself that your child is resilient and strong, and will adjust to change just fine with support. If you are too quick to jump in and mediate every situation, you might be interfering with your child’s opportunity to see what they can do for themselves. So be there, be calm, but don’t hover. Model a ‘you-can-do-it’ attitude, even if it’s not the way you actually feel in the moment.

Life is full of ups and downs, and so is school. Letting your child have academic challenges and victories will build character and healthy self-esteem. Enjoy surfing the waves together!

Books about the first day of school

The Night Before Preschool (also Kindergarten and First Grade) by Natasha Wing

This School Year Will Be The Best by Kay Winters

First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg

Kindergarten Rocks by Katie Davis

Countdown to Kindergarten by Alison McGhee

I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas

Christina has shed her fair share of tears after dropping her daughter off for her first days of school. Sometimes these tears surprised her, but eventually she didn’t need them any longer.



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