Going back to school after the summer vacation can be tough on certain kids. The transition from vacation to school is not always smooth sailing during the first or even second week of the new school term. Not all kids are super excited to start school. One of those kids is my youngest daughter, Mika. School is not her favourite place to look forward to after a fun-filled holiday break. In fact, she wish to be home-schooled as she stressed this to us repeatedly. Unlike Lea (my other daughter) who is always eager for the new school year to start; Mika is not so enthusiastic.
For the past three years, since starting Grade 1, Mika has been experiencing back-to-school anxiety. She would get physically ill. Her blood pressure would drop resulting in dizziness, vomiting and complaints of headaches and stomach cramps. But we always insisted on school attendance and only in severe cases would keep her home. Usually by the second week of the new school year, she has settled in and all is forgotten.
How the back-to-school anxiety manifested
My child never had separation issues before. As a baby she never cried when separated from us. She never cried or was anxious when she started playschool or Grade R. On the contrary she was excited to go to school and adjusted well. So when she started experiencing back-to-school anxiety at the start of Grade 1; we found this behaviour profoundly odd. More so, because this was familiar territory – the building, the kids, the teachers and the rules. It wasn’t as if she was a newbie at the school. She was enrolled there from Grade R. Usually this kind of anxiety is prone when kids just start school (a new playschool or primary school). In most instances, it is the fear of being separated from the parents or an unfamiliar environment with new rules.
At first we shrugged it off as being a behaviour problem and that she was showing resistance for returning to school. But after it happened again the following year; we realized that it is a real issue. Upon speaking to her we got to the crux of what manifests the anxiety. She is anxious of the new grade and its challenges, a new teacher, not having the same friends in her class and the fact that her age will let her down.
It all came down to the fact that when she was in Grade R a recommendation was made that we hold her back due to her age. Let me tell you, we weren’t aware that she knew about this. Somehow we think we can hide things like this from our kids but they are wise. Her self-confidence takes a serious knock at the start of each year and she starts feeling overwhelmed. It is a case of “will I be good enough to make the grade and will I be able to cope”. She questions her self-worth and to be honest for a child who averages over 80% and enjoys learning new things; she doesn’t have to.
To ease the back-to-school anxiety, we decided to change things up a bit. I must say that these supporting strategies helped a lot. As this year, her back-to-school anxiety levels were less than intense.
Here is what you can do to help your child cope.
9 Strategic tips to ease back-to-school anxiety and rebuild confidence
Don’t downplay it; pay attention
Don’t nag on your child’s head and brush it off as a behaviour problem. Back-to-school anxiety is anything but a behaviour problem. It is a psychological response from the brain that envisages danger. Pay attention to their body language and mood. Sometimes you notice things without them saying anything.
Allow your child to express his/her fears and listen
Give your child the opportunity to verbalise his/her fears of starting a new school year. Listen attentively to your child without interrupting. Respect your child’s feelings.
Provide emotional support
Show empathy but don’t dwell on the matter. Show affection – hug, laugh and let him/her know they are loved. Let your child know that he/she has your support when it comes to homework, projects and tests. Boost your child’s confidence by telling him/her how proud you are of them. Tell your child how brave he/she is, that success comes from hard work and giving it your best and that failure is not the end of the road but a learning curve.
Empower your child with flexible thinking skills
As parents we are not there to fix every single problem our children have. Instead empower your child by engaging and encouraging him/her to find solutions to overcome their fears. A great way is letting your child develop flexible thinking skills. This is a great way to shift the mindset, teach children how to think outside of the box, problem solve and adapt to change.
Self-talk is one of the flexible thinking tools we encourage. It allows kids to talk to themselves in a positive way, to pose questions to themselves about why they feel overwhelmed, their fears and what strengths they have to slam those fears. This is a powerful tool to boost self-confidence at a great coping mechanism.
Role play with dolls or finger puppets is another flexible thinking tool that works great. Imaginary scenarios leads to creativity on how to work through the problem and find solutions.
Another flexible thinking tool that we use, is story writing. It allows your child to write a story giving as much detail about the environment, the problem and the solution.
Of course there are many other flexible thinking tools that you can use.
Don’t overreact and reverberate your child’s anxieties. Our kids look to us for guidance and it will not help if you stress as well. Choose your words wisely when engaging with your child about his/her anxieties. Let your child write down all the positives about attending school. Let him/her place that note in their blazer or school bag. This will allow them to shift their focus from the negatives.
Invite school friends
During the holiday, invite a few school friends over to play. This will help maintain and strengthen friendships. Allow them to have fun to get their mind off the fears of going back to school. It will also be a trigger of excitement to see those friends at school again.
Get back into a routine
A week before school start, get back into your normal routine. Make sure your child gets to bed early to ensure a good nights rest for early risers.
Visit the school before it starts
For kids who are new to a school, try and visit the school before it start. This will give your child an idea of the layout of the school building, playground and classrooms. We usually visit the school two days before it start by going to the clothing shop. This also allows my daughter to get comfortable with the idea of returning to school. It also helps if you know who the teacher is before school starts. Avoiding unexpected surprises and disappointment on the day. At the school my daughters’ attend; the class teacher will send a welcome email before school starts. It allows the kids to get familiar with the idea of who their teacher will be. Rumors of strict teachers may spark fears but reassure your child that it is just a rumor. Each child’s experience with a teacher is different.
Make sure that your child has all school uniform items. Get the school bags ready and label all stationery. Let your child help you find simple and easy to prepare lunch box ideas. Prepare a healthy breakfast that is not time consuming. Being organised on the morning of the first day of school will eliminate added stress. Should your child receive any books that require covering; then do it as soon as possible.
Back-to-school anxiety is temporary and children will settle into their new school or grade within the first week or two. However if your child’s anxiety continues throughout the year, then seek professional help.
Hoping that these tips will help your child cope with his/her back-to-school anxiety and have a successful academic year.