Going back to school in September can be very stressful for children. The nature of the child’s back-to-school anxiety will vary depending on his or her developmental level. For example, younger children (i.e. those entering kindergarten or elementary school) might experience separation anxiety from their parents. Older children (i.e. those transitioning from Elementary to Middle School) might be worried about their relationships with friends, sense of identity, increased academic demands and physical abilities. Adolescents who are transitioning from Middle School to High School might be apprehensive about entering a larger and more competitive environment, having more choices, fitting into a social group and experiencing pressure to perform well. The more prepared your child is for the first day of school, the less anxious he or she will feel when that day arrives. Here are some things you can do to ease your child’s back-to-school anxiety:
Visit the school with your child prior to beginning of the school year. This is particularly important for younger children or if the child is entering a new school. Some schools offer orientations, which include meeting the child’s teacher, locating the classroom, locker, etc. However, even tracing the route to school with your child prior to the beginning of the school year can be helpful in alleviating some of the child’s apprehension. For younger children, you can also bring a snack and let them play on the school playground.
Many schools (and even some classrooms) have website pages. For example, websites of schools within the Toronto District School Board can be found at http://www.tdsb.on.ca/schools/tdsb_school_search/. Once you locate your child’s school, you and your child can read about it.
Organize a to-do list before school starts (i.e. what to buy for school, what to pack into the backpack, etc.). Use a calendar to mark events coming up (i.e. first day of school, birthdays, family outings, grandparents’ visit, etc.) so that the child can anticipate and plan for events. Allow the child to participate in organization/planning as much as possible.
Re-establish school routine (if it has changed) at least one week prior to the beginning of school, including going to bed at an earlier time, waking up with the alarm, eating breakfast earlier, etc. This would prevent the child from being tired and overwhelmed the first few days of school.
Discuss with your child what he or she may expect on the first day of school. Encourage your child to ask you questions. Tell them it is okay to be a little nervous when starting something new. Share a story about your own first day of school: share your worries and positive experiences. Younger children might find it easier to express themselves through imaginative play, rather than verbalizing their thoughts and feelings.
Teach your child relaxation skills. One exercise to help your child relax is deep breathing. With a younger child, present it as a game: pretend to blow up a balloon, blow bubbles or blow out candles on a birthday cake. With older children, practice slow breathing with them (on the count of 4 breathe in through the nose, hold the breath and on the count of 4 breath out through the mouth). Explain to the child that you are teaching them this skill to help them relax and that they can utilize it whenever they feel apprehensive (i.e. on the first day of school). Practice on a daily basis.
Arrange social activities for your child prior to the school start as well as in the first few weeks of school in order to reconnect with old friends and meet new friends. For younger children, this can be a play-date and for older children an outing to the movies or an amusement park.
In the morning, remind your child about what is going to happen during his or her first day of school. Reassure your child that you will pick him or her up after school at a specific time.
After you pick your child up, provide him or her with an opportunity to talk about their first day.
You might also want to consider having a special family dinner that night to celebrate the first day of school.