Easing Anxiety for ‘Back to School’
These are the last few days children (parents and teachers!) have all been dreading. The last few days of an enjoyable summer holiday with the doom of school on the horizon. The time has nearly come to commence a new school year and for our children to learn lots of new and exciting things. However, the excitement might not be felt by a lot of children – they might be finding the thought of going back to school and routine rather daunting. This is totally understandable – transition time at any age can be scary.
In fact, it is not just the little lovelies who find going back to school hard - children moving from the primary setting to high school may also need some help to adjust to their new school environment. I think we can all remember that anxious, overwhelming feeling of moving from a small primary school to a large secondary school.
Anxiety affects us all at some point in our lives. It is nature’s response to perceived danger and is associated with our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reflex. Just like adults, some children are more likely to become more anxious than others. You may have found that tensions are starting to increase in your house and your child may be getting nervy. With this in mind, we have put together a list of practical tips to help ease any fears that your child may have about going back into the classroom again. These little tricks are particularly useful for the last few days of the summer holiday because let’s face it, the anxiety surrounding school doesn’t just begin when you walk through the school gates. These ideas can be used at home even before school begins…
- Start up a conversation with your child (in the car is a good place) about their last academic year at school. Can they recall anything they were nervous about at the start of last year? Talk through the event – how did it go? Hopefully, it was not as daunting as they thought it would be. Being able to use previous positive examples works well for children.
- Have a dummy run to their school (particularly useful for new school settings). A practice journey using the same mode of transport (even walking) that they will use on their first day can be very helpful. Try not to rush this journey either – point out interesting things on the way and even play an ‘eye spy’ type game. This really helps a child to visualise getting to school and the more enjoyable/distracting the journey is, the more they will think of it with positive associations.
- Most schools these days have an official website. Why not take a peek at your school’s website with your child? By showing them photos of the school grounds or even a photo of their new teacher can help them recognise the setting and staff members. There might even be a list of topics or activities on there that the year group did last year or a new list for this year. Ask your child if there are any topics that they are excited about? Can they see any photos of the previous cohort carrying out something that they want to try this year? Try to ignite their interest.
- If your little one’s mind is racing and they are dreaming up all sorts of scenarios which are causing them distress, they need to be ‘brought back to the moment’. Hypnotherapists and life coaches use something called ‘Grounding Technique’ which is very effective. Ask your child to name something they can see, smell, taste, touch and hear. They could also try tensing and then relaxing their shoulders and then doing the same with their feet. Bringing their attention back to their senses or body parts, snaps them out of the ruminative process.
- Slowly easing out of your lazy summer bedtime routine is also a good idea. Start moving bedtimes and get up times where you need them to be during school routine. This can be done gradually, starting with fifteen minutes difference each night for a week. Creating a soothing bedtime routine can also really help – think bath, brush teeth, pyjamas, bedtime stories, music/singing/lullabies and then sleep.
- Many parents choose to meet up with friends on the last day before school. Usually, friends that their children will see at school. By doing this, conversation can gently be steered towards school – and what the friendship group is looking forward to. You may want to ask – is there anything you feel nervous about? Your little one might feel a lot better knowing that their friend has worries too. Equally, in your child’s efforts to ease their friend’s ‘back to school’ nerves, they may inadvertently help themselves and quell their own worries.
- Being prepared to start the new school year is a great way to help your kiddo feel more relaxed about their up-coming experience, for example, by making sure they have all the equipment they need. This can really help them to get into the school mindset right from the start. However, some children may need the very much necessary ‘back to school’ shopping trip embedded into a different activity or activities to help distract them from their nerves. An example would be bookending a trip for new school shoes with a trip to their local café and a trip to Grandma’s house!
- Get your bodies moving! As the weather has finally decided to perk up over the next few days, a great way to boost those ‘happy hormones’ is to get outside in the fresh air and do some exercise. Something as simple as a family bike ride or a long walk can work wonders for the mind and things seen on the way can act as a distraction from negative thoughts about school. Parents will know which physical activities are stress-relievers for their children – why not book this favourite activity for their last day, for example a climbing wall or a trampoline park.
- For very young children – making a timetable with visuals (pictures) of their morning routine before a school day can be really helpful too. Really simple commands and pictures are most effective, for example – wake up, eat breakfast, wash and brush teeth, get dressed, brush hair, put on coat and shoes, get school bag. This schedule is something to cling onto when they feel anxious.
- Mindfulness has become extremely popular in recent years, and it can be practised with children of all ages. Activities like colouring can calm children down very quickly and help them to focus on how they are feeling at that moment in time. Engaging with one’s feelings without judgement or interpretation is something that can be learnt over time. Breathing techniques are also great for calming the central nervous system and a trick that can be done anywhere, at any time. A very simple technique is breathing in for 4 counts and breathing out for 8 counts. The longer the exhale, the more your body and mind starts to relax. This type of quiet yet effective breathing can even be done in the classroom when your child is feeling nervy without anyone noticing.
- It is also important to remember that the practical tips and tricks that work for your first-born may be totally ineffective for any subsequent children. Some children can cope with knowing the date of their first day back to school and will really look forward to it. For other children, it is better to have this day ‘sprung upon’ them so they have less time to worry about it. Some children may appreciate reading books at bedtime about starting school again – for others, they are better to listen to stories on other topics.
- It is important to remind your child, that if they do start to feel anxious, physical feelings triggered by anxiety are normal and will pass eventually – for example racing hearts, needing the toilet, feeling short of breath. Sometimes, children don’t realise that their worrisome thoughts are responsible for making their bodies feel a certain way, and their physical responses just make them worry even more.
- Remind your child that teachers often feel nervous or anxious in the lead up to the start of the new academic year. This might just amuse them to think of their teacher feeling anxious(!) and help them share with you anything they are worrying about or just have a nagging feeling about which they just cannot shake off.
- For younger children too, little notes of encouragement from loved ones in their lunch boxes have been found to be very effective at ‘turning their day around.’ Lunchtime is often a time that primary-aged school children can have a wobble, so reading caring and loving notes from family members can really boost their mood for the afternoon.
So, we hope you have found these practical tips and tricks helpful – here’s to everyone ‘going back to school’ this September. Have a fantastic and successful academic year!