Preparation is the key to dealing with situations like this. The more elements of the new school year that feel familiar and controlled, the more children can relax and feel confident about the changes happening around them.
We’ve asked our school nurse, Allison, how parents can help their children manage their anxiety about school.
How can I tell if my child is experiencing school anxiety?
School anxiety can manifest in a number of different ways and can often be dismissed as behavioural problems or other health-related concerns.
If your child is displaying any of the following behaviours, they might be experiencing anxiety about school.
- Expressing lots of worry
- Asking for constant reassurance
- Crying and / or becoming clingy (particularly at school drop-off)
- Fear or avoidance of school
- Behaviour increasingly hard to manage / concerning or unusual behaviour (i.e. tantrums)
- Struggling with school work
- Loss of concentration at school and / or at home
- Fidgeting or the inability to sit still
- Antisocial behaviour (i.e. not socialising with their peers at school)
- Refusing to go to school or staying at school for the whole day
- Nausea or stomach aches
- Loss of appetite
- Problems sleeping (i.e. difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, sleeping alone and nightmares)
Does school anxiety present the same way in all children?
For kindergarten and primary school-aged children, school anxiety may present as separation anxiety and fear of being away from you, their parents. During school drop-off this may result in tantrums and problems relaxing during the school day.
School anxiety in high school children may look different. High school children may start ‘playing up’, or become withdrawn at home or at school. An increased sensitivity to criticism or becoming extremely self-conscious are also signs of school anxiety in teenagers.
If my child is experiencing school anxiety, what can I do to help?
As a parent / caregiver it can be hard to know what to do to help your child manage their school anxiety. However there are some strategies that can help.
First of all, talk to your child about their worries or fears. You may not be able to fix or change them, but acknowledging how your child feels can actually help them feel a bit better.
Explain to your child that we are made to deal with threats in one of three ways: flight, fight or freeze. Going to school can often trick our minds into thinking there is a perceived threat, because of the unknown about the year ahead. Teach your child what anxiety looks and feels like, and what they can do to help manage these feelings.
Children will thrive in an environment where they feel secure, comfortable and prepared.
Some useful strategies to help primary school-aged children manage school anxiety include:
- Get into a school-day routine the week before school (i.e. wake up early, eat and go to bed at regular times).
- Talk to your child about what they can expect during the school day (i.e. what time they will have snack and lunch, what time they will go outside to play and when they will come home).
- Help your child pack their school bag and lay out their uniform the night before. This can help prevent rushing around in the morning looking for forgotten items .
- Get up earlier to allow more time for your child to get ready in the morning so there is no rush.
- Make time for your child to talk to you about their concerns and worries about starting or going back to school.
Useful strategies for high school-aged children include:
- The same strategies listed above for primary school-aged children.
- High school-aged children will benefit from a routine that reduces the unknown or unfamiliar.
- Help your child set realistic and achievable goals for the year ahead.
- If your child uses public transport to get to school, have several practice runs in the lead up to the new school year. This can make your child feel more confident in doing this trip by themselves.
Don’t forget to talk to your child about their fears, worries or concerns they may be feeling about the new school year.
It may take several weeks for children to adjust to their new classroom. Your children will take time to adjust to making new friends and getting to know their teacher. If you notice changes in your child’s behaviour lasting beyond the first couple of weeks, speak to school staff about your concerns.
Your school may have access to health professionals including nurses, social workers or wellbeing officers. These health professionals can help you and your child manage school anxiety.