The first day of the new school year is an exciting one, but it can be a scary one for many kids, too. Kids might have anxiety about entering into a new class with a new teacher; some may be starting at an entirely new school.
The past 18 months of virtual schooling during the pandemic may have made this anxiety worse for some kids. They haven’t seen many of their classmates in over a year, and they may even have worries that are specific to going to school in the midst of a continuing pandemic (such as whether they need to keep their mask on during recess, for example).
There is no doubt about it: back-to-school this year may be more anxiety-provoking than it was in the past for many kids. But there are so many things that you can do as a parent to support your child through this and ensure that they have a successful and happy first day.
Listen and validate
Perhaps the most important thing that parents can do when their child is feeling anxious is to listen to your child. It’s tempting as parents, especially when our kids are telling us that something’s wrong, to immediately jump to “fixing” it. Some parents may also be inclined to think of a child’s anxiety as something that will go away naturally, and therefore doesn’t have to be directly addressed.
No matter how young your child is, if they tell you they’re feeling anxious about returning to school, make space for this feeling and validate them. Don’t tell them they’re overreacting, or that everything will get better once school actually starts. Reflect their feelings back to them, and ask them what they think is causing them to feel this way. When brushed under the rug, anxiety only gets stronger.
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Start talking about it
Start talking about the return to school long before your child’s first day back. For example, you might talk to them about their new classroom teacher, and tell your child what you know about the teacher. You could remind them of any friends you know they have at school, and ask them what they most miss about going to school. Allow them the space to ask any questions they may have about their return.
You might also prepare your child for the return to school in other ways. For example, if they have gone to bed past bedtime during the summer, start to adjust their sleep schedule so they get plenty of rest before their first day back.
Teach them coping skills
It’s never a bad idea to start equipping your child with coping skills they can use when they’re feeling anxious or scared. For example, most children are able to engage in the practice of deep belly breathing and other breathing exercises, especially if they do it together with their parents. Deep belly breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) physically calms down the body’s stress response and activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Practice these types of skills in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, and remind your child to use them whenever they’re feeling anxious. Empower them in being able to self-soothe their own feelings of anxiety (to a certain extent).
Do a walk-through
Sometimes, it’s uncertainty that causes a child to feel anxious. To help with this, consider doing a “walk-through” with your child at school before their official first day back. If you have permission to enter school grounds, take the opportunity to walk your child through campus and show them where their new classroom will be.
If the campus is still locked, it may be helpful just to drive them past the school and remind them of drop-off procedures. Practice what their first morning back will be like, and make sure you answer any questions your child might have. They may have questions about how things will be different when going to school during a pandemic, or need to be reminded about school protocols they’ve forgotten in their year away.
Plan for the hand-off
Especially if your child has experienced separation anxiety before, then it may be a good idea to have a plan for the hand-off. Talk to your child’s teacher and let them know that you’re worried that your child may have a difficult time on the first day of school. Teachers, especially teachers who teach younger grades, are accustomed to helping their students deal with separation anxiety and can help you build a plan for hand-off. Ask the teacher what their protocol is for kids who have a hard time on the first day of school. What will happen if your child isn’t able to calm down?
There may be another staff member on-campus that your child already has a relationship with who can help with the hand-off. For example, maybe your child has a good relationship with the cafeteria staff and you can take your child to greet them before classes begin. Some schools are also fortunate enough to have counselors or mental health therapists on-staff who can help with hand-off.
Manage your own anxiety
The first day of school can be anxiety-provoking for parents, too -- especially after the year we’ve had. You may be worried about your child becoming sick, for example. Children can often pick up on what their parents are feeling, whether you verbally express it or not. Make sure you manage your own back-to-school anxiety to avoid passing it on to your child. If you need to, seek professional mental health support. There is no shame in needing therapy for anxiety, whether the anxiety is about you or your child. Sometimes, the best thing a parent can do for their child is to take care of themselves.
There’s no denying that this back-to-school season will be a stressful one for parents and children alike. It is a completely normal, and human, response for your child (or you!) to feel anxious about their first day back at school. Follow these tips to ensure that your child’s first day goes as smoothly as possible, and don’t hesitate to seek therapy for yourself or for your child if their anxiety doesn’t go away.
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