Starting school can be exciting for young kids. It can also be scary. That’s true whether this is their first time going to school or they’re starting a new grade. And the change in routine can be especially tough for kids with learning and attention issues.
How can you help your young child feel less anxious about going to school? Here, four experts weigh in on why young kids may feel anxious about school, and how to help.
What do young kids get most anxious about when it comes to starting school?
Bob Cunningham, advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood, and head of school at the Robert Louis Stevenson School: Kids can get anxious about lots of different things. It’s actually not uncommon at all, especially for kids with learning and attention issues. Some kids’ anxiety is around friends, because they’re not going to see their summer friends as often. This means they’re going to have to re-establish connections with school friends or make new ones.
For some kids, the idea of taking the bus can also be an issue. For others, the prospect of meeting new teachers is a concern. Still other kids might get anxious about whether or not they’ll have all the right clothes and supplies for school.
Janine Domingues, clinical psychologist, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center, Child Mind Institute: If it’s their first time starting school, many kids are anxious about the unknowns. This is probably the first time they’re away from parents for an extended period of time, which can create anxiety.
For children who’ve been in school before, they can feel anxious about the transition to a new grade. They may worry about making new friends, getting to know a new teacher, and being away from home again.
Brian Stack, principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire: Most young children are creatures of habit and thrive on routines and schedules. Starting school changes what they’ve come to expect with their predictable lifestyle.
They may feel insecure about the school and classroom environments. There may be some who are anxious about something as simple as eating lunch at school or using a bathroom that they’re not familiar with.
How can I tell if my child is experiencing anxiety about starting school?
Rayma Griffin, educational consultant and advocate for the rights of children with learning disabilities and ADHD: Many kids have a hard time recognizing when they’re anxious and putting those feelings into words. But your child’s behavior will give you hints. Be observant and recognize when he seems out of sorts. Notice if he’s having trouble sleeping or if his eating habits have changed.
When they’re scared or nervous, they may actually feel sick or behave in ways that are not typical for them. That may be how they tell you something is bothering them.
Janine Domingues: Kids may verbalize their fears with questions that seek assurance. For example, some may ask, “Are you going to be able to stay with me?” “Will my teacher like me?” “Will I make friends?”
It’s also common to see physical symptoms of anxiety. Your child may have a stomachache, usually in the morning before school or in the evening before going to bed.
After the first month of school, your kid should be less nervous and more comfortable with the school routine. However, if after a month your child still has intense anxiety about school, you may want to seek additional help.
Brian Stack: Young children aren’t always able to pinpoint what may be causing them to feel pain, stress or anxiety. One obvious sign is a change in behavior or attitude. Children may become irritable or withdrawn, particularly after having a discussion about starting school.
Also, parents may notice a change in their child’s bathroom behaviors. You’ll want to observe if your child is going more frequently or having accidents.
Bob Cunningham: We know that kids can get anxious about the start of school. But it’s often not that obvious what anxiety actually looks like for a child. Some kids start asking more questions, even questions unrelated to school. Others become more argumentative, even in casual conversation.
Some kids express unusual concerns, like fears about themselves or their parents becoming ill or getting hurt.
What can I say to help my child feel less anxious?
Brian Stack: When talking about starting school, reassure your child that school is a fun and safe space. You can tell him he’ll get to meet new friends and participate in fun games and activities.
If possible, plan a visit to the school with your child. It can be helpful to take pictures of the school and classroom, as well as the adults your child will work with. You can show the pictures in the days and weeks leading up to school to help familiarize your child with his new environment.
Bob Cunningham: I’ve always observed that kids can feed off of parents’ anxiety. Do your best to be calm and routine when preparing for back to school. Don’t make a big deal out of it.
Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about starting school. For instance, you can say things like: “I was talking to your friend’s mom, and she mentioned that your friend is looking forward to seeing you at school.”
But rather than talking, often it’s even more helpful to actually do things that can lessen anxiety. Make a checklist of things he needs to have for the start of school. He can check off each one as he gets it so he can see that he is getting ready. Plan a few upcoming weekend activities with summer friends or family for the first few weeks of school. Let him know that the end of summer doesn’t mean the end of fun.
Rayma Griffin: It’s important to acknowledge your child’s anxiety. Listen to him and validate his concerns. You may also want to remind your child of any previous situation where he felt anxious in the beginning, and then things turned out well. Talk about how he coped in that situation, and how it could apply to this situation.
Help him develop a positive mantra, too. “I know I can. I know I can. I know I can,” could be a positive self-message for him to repeat when facing an anxiety-producing moment.
Janine Domingues: Let your child know that it’s normal to feel anxious about starting school. Acknowledging fears can be helpful. For example, you can try saying, “You may be feeling nervous or scared about starting school, and that’s OK. You can get through it, and I’m here to help.”
Reaching out to friends who may be in the same class and setting up playdates prior to school starting can also help ease worries. And providing your child with positive praise when he’s coping with nervousness will help him build good coping skills.
More Things You Can Do
Having the right tools can help you and your kids prepare for the start of school. These back-to-school downloads can make the transition easier. Explore back-to-school book lists for preschoolers and grade-schoolers. That includes great books for kids starting preschool or kindergarten. And learn more about what anxiety looks like in kids.