A little anxiety is always expected and normal. But some children experience persistent and excessive worry while attending school or while thinking about it outside of school. They may experience anxiety attacks and feel ill. School anxiety may interfere with academic work, behavior at home, emotional health and socializing.
For some kids, school is frightening.
All children occasionally experience butterflies during the school day. Perhaps the nervousness arrives waiting to be called upon to give a presentation. Or maybe dancing has never been their forté, and suddenly they are asked to choose a partner in P.E.
Psychologist and educator Marie Hartwell Walker, ED.D., likens school anxiety to a phobia of dogs. Dr. Walker says, “For some kids, going to school is like confronting a vicious dog every day. For them, school is a place where they can’t succeed, where they feel bad about themselves, where they constantly fall short.”
Why the excess worry?
Social worker and author of Overcoming School Anxiety (AMACOM, 2008), Diane Peters Mayer writes that over 6 million school children have school anxiety – a mind-body reaction ranging from butterflies to blanking out or having a panic attack.
Kids may report feeling sick because their emotional and physical symptoms confuse them. Symptoms of school anxiety can include: a pounding heartbeat, diarrhea, nausea, headache, tense muscles, shortness of breath and dizziness. Kids may feel overwhelmed, out of control, helpless or embarrassed. Parents sometimes mistake a child’s suffering for manipulation.
Mayer describes various reasons for school anxiety:
1. Demands at school. Standards within the school curriculum are higher than ever. Kids who aren’t great test takers may feel the pressure of so much assessment and competition. Sometimes heavy homework loads and falling behind create the anxiety.
2. Parental anxiety. Many children are sensitive to their parent’s own fear and anxiety. When a parent projects their concerns onto the child, anxiety may be exacerbated.
3. Stress at home. The burdened economy is one factor adding to the stress of families. Because of unemployment and financial hardship, many kids may be struggling along with their caregivers. Other children may be over-scheduled and lacking sufficient time for free play.
4. Fitting in. Kids who have trouble socially at school are at risk for school anxiety. Mayer says tweens are especially vulnerable. Bullying at school may also contribute.
5. Set up for failure at school. Not all schools have programs in place to help kids with anxiety. This makes treatment and success at school more difficult.
Tips to manage school anxiety:
Mayer’s book touches on the following advice for overcoming school anxiety.
1. Listen and don’t freak out. Mayer says listen to your child talk about the anxiety. She says, “Reassure your child that together you are going to solve the problem and make things better.” Since your child may be feeling out of control, it is important for you to keep your own worry and anxiety in check. To make things better for your child, stay calm in spite of what they may say or do.
2. Communicate with the school. Your child’s teachers and counsellors will want to brainstorm with you about the problem. Sometimes it is necessary to see a child therapist or a doctor outside of school. Let your child know seeking this sort of help is honorable, not a sign of failure.
3. Relaxation techniques. Various deep breathing, meditation and relaxation exercises may help. A school counsellor or psychologist can be a helpful resource for such techniques.
4. Reduce stress at home. This is a tough one. It’s important to become a role model of good coping skills when it comes to stress and managing problems.
5. Convey hope and why managing the setback is important. “I believe in you” is a powerful phrase for your child to hear. Talk to them about how you are confident they will overcome this snag and be stronger for it. Discuss with your child how learning something new is never a waste of time and a critical part of their development.
Michele Ranard, M.Ed., has experience helping children deal with anxiety both as a mom and an academic tutor. She has two children, a master’s in counselling and a blog at www.cheekychicmama.com.
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