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Exceptional Lives Team
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September 7, 2023

How to help your child with back to school anxiety: Tips from a child development expert

It’s back to school season and many of us are struggling to help our children with back to school anxiety. Here are 4 strategies for parents.

It’s early in the school year – or the very beginning in some parts of the country – and so many of us are struggling to help our children with back-to-school anxiety. Our podcast host, Christina Kozik, interviewed Dr. Julie McIsaac, a specialist in early childhood development who focuses on learning disabilities and mental health. Here is what Julie had to say.

You can hear the full interview on Episode 52 of our Just Needs Podcast.

Why is it so important to address children’s back-to-school anxiety? Isn’t it normal to be nervous about going back?

Back-to-school anxiety is very common. But it’s still important to support our kids through it.

If a child is in distress, it actually affects their brain’s ability to take in new information. Any mental health concerns, challenges, or extra stress make learning much harder. 

In other words: if we don’t help our children manage their anxiety, they can’t learn.

What is your advice for parents who want to help their child with back-to-school anxiety?

#1 Anticipate the stress and think about how you will respond

Whether your child has already started school or is about to start, assume there is some anxiety. We can consider what we’re worried about to help us understand what our children may be worried about. For example:

  • Where is the school? How will they get there? Will their friends travel with them? Do they need support around rides, the bus, walking to school?
  • Will their teachers like them? Understand them? Will they have the support they need in the classroom? 

As parents, when we assume our child is feeling that stress in some way, it helps us meet their behavior with some extra compassion. If we’re wrong, they get a little extra compassion. If we’re right, we meet their needs and set them up for success. 

Think about what has worked in the past during moments of high stress or big transitions. What has helped your child in those moments? This might be time to recall the things that helped and start to put them into action. 

Does your child have lots of sensory needs? As school starts, they may need extra cuddle time, or time to jump on a trampoline or go swimming. Does your child do well with extra quality time with a parent? Maybe you could stretch out the bedtime routine with extra books. Maybe they just need some comfort in the form of their favorite sweatshirt and comfort food for dinner. Or maybe they need some time to tell you everything they’re worried about and have you listen without dismissing their worries. 

Whatever it is for your child, think about how to amp up the comfort, reduce demands, and assume this is a period of higher stress.

#2 Make a point of noticing your child’s behaviors.

Sometimes our kids express their anxiety in ways that are hard for us to understand. In the interview, Christina told us about her son, who started a new school this year. All summer, he asked to drive past the school. The school was closed, and she didn’t understand why it helped, but she did it because she saw that it did help.

It would be very easy to say, “Buddy, we’re going to spend so much time going to school every day for this next year. You know the school, you’ll be fine. You saw it yesterday. Here’s a picture.” But if he’s expressing that desire, you can interpret that as he’s a bit anxious. He needs this for comfort. Driving past the school repeatedly is going to fill a need for him.

Sometimes these feelings may come up as aggression or refusal. Maybe your child sounds more like “No, I don’t want anything. I don’t like that food anymore. I don’t want to do this. No, no, no, no, no.” That also could be anxiety. It’s harder to wrap that up in a hug, because we’re triggered by it.

Notice your child’s behavior, even if you don’t understand it, and assume it is coming from a place of, “I’m worried, I’m anxious, I don’t know what to expect.” 

Remind them what they do know. You may want to ask questions like:

  • What do you know about next year? 
  • What do you know about the school? 
  • What do you know about your class? 

Remembering what they know can be their anchor when they’re getting lost in the unknown.

#3 Help make new experiences familiar

We get anxious when we don’t know what to expect or when we are approaching something unfamiliar. So if we can help these experiences become familiar, we reduce our kids’ anxiety.

  • Lean into rituals you already have. Maybe you make a big deal out of donating old school clothes that are too small. Maybe you have spaghetti for dinner after the first day of school and your child chooses where to get ice cream afterwards. Talk with your child about what rituals they’ve loved in the past and make sure to do those again.
  • Create new rituals. Maybe the two of you write a letter to the teacher every year the week before school starts. Or you plan a pizza movie night with all your pillows and blankets on the first Friday night so they have something to look forward to.
  • Get ahead of new experiences so they feel routine. Find pictures of your child’s teachers and support team members on the school’s website. Drive past the new school during the summertime. Walk with your child on the new route to school before the first day.
  • Help your child make the link between last year and this year. Julie and her son Sammy talk about “Team Sammy,” which includes Sammy’s parents and all of the adults who support him at school. Some of the team members may change from one year to the next, but Team Sammy is always there. 

#4 Open up communication with your child’s teacher and make sure your child knows you’re in touch.

As parents, we tend to communicate only when something’s wrong. But if you set up open and regular communication early on, you are building the relationship. You are telling the teacher: This door is open. We are a team. I’m here if you have any questions.

You may be hesitant to reach out because you know how swamped teachers are, especially at the beginning of the year. But open communication between parents and teachers helps everyone involved:

  • You are less anxious because you know more about what’s happening at school.
  • Your child feels less anxious because you’re calmer – this is co-regulation. And remember Team Sammy? This is how you build it.
  • Your teacher can help your child manage their anxiety because they have more insight into how your child is feeling. And they know you can help them make sense out of mystifying behavior.

Back to school anxiety can be a tough one to handle – but with your help, it doesn’t need to get in your child’s way. Good luck, families. You can do this.

Learn more about how to help your child with back to school anxiety:

  • Julie McIsaac, Ph.D.

    Child Development and Disability Advisor

    Julie specializes in working with children and families with diverse developmental profiles She uses reflective practice, emotion-coaching, play and a relationship-based framework to support skill building in the areas of emotional-regulation and problem-solving. Julie consults with families, schools and community organizations. As a parent, she understands the need to have a cohesive team supporting a child and family.

    Profile Photo of Julie McIsaac
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