I have been in the education field for more than 20 years, having taught Kindergarten, grade one and grade two. As well, I am the mother of two great kids that are now 10 and 12. In my experience, I have both parented and taught many anxious children. Over the years, I have made several observations and noted some patterns regarding anxiety in children. I’m certainly not a psychologist and do not claim to have all the answers, but wanted to share some of what I have learned through my years of working with children.
My Observations and Thoughts on Childhood Anxiety:
Most children are going to feel at least somewhat apprehensive about going back to school. Usually these feelings are balanced with excitement and are what I would consider to be completely normal. Every child wonders what their new teacher will be like and which friends will be in their class. They often wonder if the work will be hard and if they’ll have lots of homework. Every year is a new beginning and there is often a fear of the unknown. Once they arrive at school and the get the answers to the questions that have been swimming around in their mind, all is well and they settle in nicely. However, this is not always the case and for some children they become so worried and anxious that it can be somewhat all consuming. A parent with even the highest level of patience can become frustrated by the constant questions, need for reassurance and even, complete melt downs. Believe me, I’ve seen and lived it all.
If your child is feeling quite anxious about school, here are a few things that you might want to try or at least consider:
- Talk About the Worry and help to put it into perspective. Try to work through the “worst case scenerio” because for some kids that is where they’re “stuck”. For example, a child with separation anxiety, is often worried they’ll be left at school. Emphasize all the “right” things such as where you’ll be and at what time, but also talk about what would happen if you were running late. Let them know they would never be left alone and would always be kept safe. Don’t discount their fears, but help them to recognize that even if their fear came to pass, it would all be okay. Emphasize all the great things about school such as making friends, playing with new toys, story time, playing in the gym, singing and dancing, recess (older kids), etc. Having said this, I found that with my own children, after explaining and discussing the worry, we tried to lay it to rest. For me, I found that when we continued to discuss the same worry over and over it was like watering and nourishing a seed and if we continued to give it the attention and nourishment, it would take root and become even worse. If your child does not bring it up, don’t ask them how they are feeling as it is only going to re-surface. This is an excellent book/workbook that I used with my own children and I would highly recommend it, if anxiety an issue in your home. It provides you and the child with great strategies for dealing with worries.
- For younger children just beginning school or changing schools, try to spend time at the playground just to help the child feel comfortable around the school. It is quite possible they may also meet some neighbourhood kids while playing. I also suggest pointing to the school as you drive or walk by for months prior to school starting. Talk to them about how that is going to be their school. If your child’s school has any city programs or preschool programs offered in the school building – register your child for a program. Our school division has a program called Kindergarten Here We Come. It is designed for 4 year olds in their pre-kindergarten year. I find that children who have spent time in the school for programs, picking up siblings or playing on the structure generally feel more comfortable with starting school. Programs also have the added advantage of helping your child meet other children their age, learn how to engage socially in larger groups and can sharpen their physical and/or academic skills, depending on the type of program.
- Walk to school when possible. I’m a firm believer in walking your children to school when possible. Of course, this isn’t an option for students that are bussed, but if possible, I think there is a lot to be gained. First, if your house is like mine, it can be a bit crazy and even stressful in the mornings. Trying to get everyone up, showered, teeth brushed, lunches made, homework and notes packed and out the door on time. Sometimes the morning frenzy can add to the anxiety of a child. I find that the walk to school provides the child with the time they need to calm their nerves and relax before entering school. It provides you with an opportunity to connect positively with your child without the “nagging” and frustration that can often happen in the midst of the morning rush. It also gives the child a chance to stretch their legs and have a bit of exercise before having to sit down, concentrate and complete their school tasks. A bit of exercise is a great way to start the day on a positive note!
- Register for Morning Class if your child is in a half day program. When your child is entering a half day program, there are many things to consider such as what works for your family, childcare arrangements and of course, what program you think your child will thrive in. One of the things I’ve noticed is that children that have issues with separation anxiety seem to cope better in a morning program. I don’t know why, but I feel it is because they get up and go. They don’t have the time to think or worry about school. When a child is enrolled in the afternoon program, they have all morning to worry about leaving their mom and possibly even the fun games they are engaged in with their siblings. To them it probably feels like a punishment. They are having fun playing with their favourite toys with their brother/sister in the safety of their own home and it doesn’t seem fair when their siblings get to stay at home with mom/dad while they go to school. I’m sure they think about all the things they are going to miss out on. The afternoon program works well for many children, but I believe, generally speaking, that morning Kindergarten/Nursery works better for those with anxiety.
- Be Punctual – the absolute worst thing you can do when you have an anxious kid is be late. It is essential to have your child at school with enough time to briefly engage with their peers prior to the bell ringing. Once they see their friends and have a chance to chat, it immediately lowers their anxiety level. If you bring them late and they have to enter the building by themselves or with you and there are no friends in sight ~ their anxiety level skyrockets. Of course, the same is true for after school. Whoever is picking up your child must be on time. There is nothing as devastating for a small child than leaving the classroom and finding no one there to pick them up. They often dissolve into tears immediately, believing they’ve been abandoned. Don’t be late and if you are stuck in traffic or something, call the school so that the teacher can prepare the child.
- Don’t enter the school/classroom. Every school/teacher is different and has their own procedures and expectations for drop-off. After teaching kindergarten for many years, I have found that the last thing an anxious child needs is a parent to come into the school/classroom with them. I teach the kids in my pre-kindergarten meetings that Kindergarten is for kids and that we will wave goodbye to mom and dad outside. It is way easier to take a child’s hand and lead them into the classroom than to try to have a parent leave once they’ve entered. Usually, even the most upset child will settle within the first few minutes once the parent is out of sight. I usually have support teachers who are available to help during the first few days of school. It is much more effective for the school to handle the anxiety without the parent involved. If the parent comes in, it sets a precedent and the child gets the message that if I scream louder or cry harder, they’ll come in. It is very difficult to break and only escalates the anxiety and the behaviour. The sooner they face the unknown on their own (with staff support as needed) the more quickly they’ll settle. I have had many kids that have literally clung to their parents screaming and crying, but will settle within a few minutes of saying goodbye. Every parent who experiences this, feels absolutely horrible when they see the distress of their anxious child, but in their best interest say your goodbyes outside and set them up for success. I know this is extremely hard, but it will be worth it. Remember it is often the difficult choices that are more effective, it is much easier to give them a big hug and whisper those words of reassurance, but unfortunately its not all that effective. It is much more productive to talk about how “how it is going to go down” before the day ever comes – the key is preparation, so they know what to expect.
- Meet a friend before school. If you child is feeling worried about the first day of school, plan to walk to school with neighbourhood friends. If this isn’t an option, perhaps you can plan to meet at a specific spot 5 minutes before the bell so that the kids can connect before school. Walking in with a friend is much easier ~ I know I always prefer to do something knew with a friend.
- Bathroom Bashfulness – This is so common! I wrote about this in my post yesterday, but it really fits with the subject of today’s post, so I’ll say it again. Using the bathroom independently is a pretty important part of going to school. The children should not only know how to go to the bathroom on their own, but should also be taught proper bathroom etiquette. Using a public restroom is very different from going to the bathroom at home. Help prepare your child by talking about things like: closing the door, washing their hands, knocking before opening the door when it’s closed, what to do if they “drip” on the seat, what to do if they have an accident, etc. Using the bathroom is actually a cause for great anxiety for many youngsters and the result can sometimes be that they will refuse “to go” at school. This isn’t healthy and although the strategy may work in a half day program, it isn’t as effective when they come all day in grade one. The anxiety comes from all the “unknowns” and the best way to conquer this is to talk about it.
- Plant the seed and register early – most schools accept fall registrations as early as March (this gives you months to talk and prepare for it). As mentioned before, you should be talking about school (positively) long before they ever start. Your attitude and excitement will play a huge part in how your child feels about school. My daughter can be a bit anxious, so we began going to the February open house for her grade 7 school when she was in grade 4. We knew where she was going to go, so we gave her 3 years to get used of the idea and prepare for the change. Naturally, she still has some worries about the unknown, but she’s also super excited and looking forward to it, instead of having anxiety attacks and meltdowns. She already saw the new school as “her school” long before she ever started, and she did not know one single person who would be attending the same school. Anxious kids need plenty of time to adjust and accept change.
- Make sure your child gets enough sleep and has a good breakfast in the morning. I don’t think I really need to expand on us. We all know that overtired and/or hungry kids pretty much equals disaster. Establish a consistent bed time and wake up time for your child.
- Establish Routines – I’m a pretty rigid routine kind of a person, but when my son was having some anxiety issues when he was younger, one of the things we did to help him was tighten up our routines. Children that feel anxious need to very tight boundaries. They need to know what’s happening and when. We already ran a pretty tight ship, but we did things like formally establish and mount house rules and designated a very specific time-out space with a set of expectations on how that would work. Routines are extremely important to anxious kids. They do not “fly by the seat of their pants”, at least not well. If your child is feeling anxious, you need to do what you can to create very firm boundaries and with clear expectations.
If your child suffers from anxiety, there are two other things I think you need to consider.
- I had written a post some time ago suggesting that I think there maybe a link between technology and childhood anxiety. Now a days, kids spend much of their time on some kind of a device. They are constantly being “entertained” and I believe it is detrimental to their overall development. When there isn’t WiFi or a device available, they are “bored” and don’t know what to do with themselves. They are uncomfortable with themselves and their own thoughts and don’t have the slightest idea how to fill their down time. For many, their entire self-image can be traced to the number of likes, friends or followers they have. If you would like to read more from my post “Is Technology Causing Anxiety?” , follow the link.
- There is also research suggesting a link between diet and anxiety. Many psychologists and physicians are suggesting a controlled diet as a means of helping manage anxiety. Research indicates that sugar can be one of the worst contributors. To learn more about how and why diet is so important, check out this two part article called Feed them Calm: The Role of Nutrition in Your Child’s Anxiety.