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 very challenging for some kids. This year may be challenging for even more kids as they return to in-person school after a long time away from it.
What do young kids get most anxious about when it comes to starting school?
Kids can get anxious about lots of different things. It’s actually not uncommon at all, especially for kids with learning and thinking differences. Some kids’ are anxious about not going to see their summer friends as often. This means they’re going to have to re-establish connections with school friends which understandably many children stress about.
For some kids, the idea of taking the bus can also be an issue. For others, the prospect of meeting new teachers, particularly if they were attached to their previous class teacher and this is a real concern for your child. Still other kids might get anxious about whether or not they’ll have all the right clothes and supplies for school.
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?
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. Learn to watch and recognize when your child seems out of sorts. Notice if your child is having trouble sleeping or seems more irritated by small things, or if you see any changes at mealtimes.
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.
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 child 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 and most schools have counsellors who will signpost you in how to handle this.
What can I say to help my child feel less anxious?
When talking about starting school, reassure your child that school is a fun and safe space. Offer a reminder that your child will 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 this new environment.
Remember 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 your child needs to have for the start of school. Together, you can check off each item as your child gets it to show progress. Plan a few upcoming weekend activities with summer friends or family for the first few weeks of school. Let your child know that the end of summer doesn’t mean the end of fun.
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.