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First Week Back-To-School Jitters

Ask any school-aged child, parent or teacher and you’ll likely hear that of all the school weeks, this is the most anxiety provoking. For children, there may be anxiety about how well they’re going to get along with the other students in their classroom, how much they’re going to like their new teacher (or whether the teacher is really as strict as everyone says!), how they’re going to get up on time in the morning (actually, that’s more likely the parents worry!), and whether they’ll be included in games at outdoor recess.

For parents, it’s normal to worry, too - especially if your child is just starting out in Kindergarten, high school or university - or beginning a new Grade at a new school. Normal to worry about your child taking the school bus on their own. Normal to fret about how you’re going to get it all together in the morning - make school lunches, get everyone out of bed and to school before the first bell. Normal to worry about your son or daughter finding his or her way around a large campus or living away from home for the first time.

Even teachers experience jitters as they prepare for their first week back after summer break. Even though they’ve usually taken a few days before the students arrive to ready their classroom and reconnect with their colleagues, they’re worried about working with a fresh group of children. They’re anxious about being able to set a firm but fair tone during the first week that will follow them through the year.

Usually by the second week, and definitely by the third, most of the creases have been ironed out and most classrooms are sailing on smooth waters. Teachers are comfortable with their classrooms, any changes to the classes have been worked out and children have settled into a rhythm with one another - both in the classroom and the playground.

However, for some children, anxiety continues beyond the first few weeks. Children may manifest anxiety in slightly different ways to adults. They often complain about headaches or stomachaches when they feel anxious. They may say that they don’t feel like eating breakfast (even though they typically enjoy this meal). They may complain about feeling nauseous. If these symptoms continue beyond the second week of school, it’s a good idea to try to figure out why.

Consider whether your child is typically anxious. Maybe they’ve felt this way during other stressful periods or transitions in their life. In this case, they may be more prone to anxiety. You may know that it takes time before they settle in and may choose to take a wait-and-see approach.

If he or she isn’t normally an anxious child, perhaps there’s something happening at school that needs to be explored further. Is there another child who they’re particularly uncomfortable with? Are they being teased or bullied? Is their new teacher’s style of communication something they’re not familiar or comfortable with?

Acknowledging that some anxiety is normal is a good idea - especially in the first week or two. However, if it extends beyond that, it may be wise to communicate with other people, such as their teacher, to see what the teacher is observing when your child is in their care.

Brainstorm solutions to help ease your child’s anxiety:

1. Sometimes, breaking up your child’s day so that they can come home for lunch one or two days a week (during the first few weeks) may help them get through the day. However, be cautious about rescuing them too quickly. If they’re anxious about social time during recess and/or lunch, then whisking them away at lunch to the safety of your home will relieve their anxiety temporarily but won’t allow them to develop the skills and self-confidence to overcome this anxiety. Rather, discuss ways that they can talk to others and encourage friendships.

2. If your child attends a neighbourhood school, arrange playdates after school so that they can become more comfortable with classmates outside of school in a more relaxed environment.

3. Practice deep breathing or progressive relaxation exercises at home. There are relaxation CDs that you can listen to with your child to learn exercises that they can then practice at school without anyone even knowing.

4. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the best treatment approach for dealing with anxiety. If your child’s anxiety is getting in the way of getting to or staying at school, then it would be wise to contact a therapist who is experienced with treating children and using the CBT approach so that he or she can develop other more powerful strategies for dealing with anxiety.

For more tips on dealing with anxiety in children – both at school and home, listen to one of  Sara’s free parenting podcasts, ‘parenting an anxious child,’ at www.helpmesara.com.

Sara Dimerman is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario and provides counselling to individuals, couples and families. She is the author of two parenting books, Am I A Normal Parent? and Character Is the Key and is one of North America’s leading parenting experts. Listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching “helpmesara” on iTunes. Find out more at www.helpmesara.com.


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