How to help your child cope with back-to-school anxiety

By John Piacentini, PhD

How can I help my child cope with back-to-school anxiety?, mom hugging child

At a glance

  • Many kids get anxious before the start of a new school year.

  • Kids who learn and think differently may worry about keeping up or fitting in.

  • You can help reduce back-to-school anxiety for your child.

Going back to school can be a stressful time for kids and families, especially if the new year will bring big changes like switching to a new school or having more than one teacher. Kids who learn and think differently can be particularly anxious about keeping up or fitting in.

If your child is anxious or worried leading up to the start of school, these tips can help.

Talk about the transition

It’s important for your child to know you’re there to listen and help problem-solve. Find a time to talk when your child is relatively calm. (Avoid times like when your child is upset or getting ready for school.) Here are some things you can say.

“Let’s think of ways I can help make going back easier for you.” For example, you might pack a special snack or walk your child to the classroom (if allowed) on the first few days. But make it clear that staying home from school just because your child wants to isn’t an option.

“What do you like about school?” Talk about good memories from previous years. Highlight these positive moments and use them as a reminder that school can be rewarding and fun.

“Is there anything in particular about this school year that’s worrying you?” Is your child anxious about keeping up? Getting along with teachers? Making friends? Getting bullied? Talking about your child’s specific concerns can help you find specific solutions.

“I see that you’re anxious about school. But I believe in you and I’m here to help.” Projecting a sense of confidence and understanding may seem like a small thing. But when kids know that you know what they’re going through, it can make a big difference.

Don’t react to tantrums

Sometimes, anxiety can lead to angry outbursts. If your child has a tantrum about going back to school, try to stay calm and avoid getting angry or upset. This can be hard to do in the moment, but it makes a huge difference. 

Tantrums are an attention-seeking behavior. It’s best to ignore them, and then praise your child when you see calmer behavior. Later, ask when would be a good time to talk about why your child was upset.

Start switching into school mode

Waiting until the last minute to change schedules and routines can make some kids feel more anxious, not less. Start the process early. 

  • Practice morning and evening routines. Move to a school-year schedule a few weeks in advance. That includes school wake-up times, bedtimes, and mealtimes.
  • Get everything in order ahead of time. Gather needed school supplies a few days before school starts, and work on organizing your child’s backpack. Get to know the class schedule, if you have it.
  • Give your child choices. Have your child pick out what to wear on the first day of school. Or have your child choose a favorite meal for dinner for that night. Having a choice gives kids a sense of control and excitement about school. (With younger kids, you can pick out a few options and let them decide.)
  • Reach out to others for support. Try to set up a time for your child and a classmate to play before school starts. It’s a good opportunity for you, too. Talking with other families about their own back-to-school struggles and successes is a reminder that you’re not alone.

Talking with your child and taking steps to ease concerns can smooth the transition back to school. But if these strategies don’t help, keep an eye on what you’re seeing. You can use an anxiety log to take notes. The notes will come in handy if you decide to reach out to someone, like a health care professional, for help.

Key takeaways

  • It’s important to show your child that you understand.

  • Switching back to school routines early can reduce anxiety.

  • Ignore attention-getting tantrums about going back to school.

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    About the author

    About the author

    John Piacentini, PhD is a professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support (CARES) Center.