The end of summer signals a return to the classroom for millions of children. It’s an exciting time for some, but it can also be scary.
Many children and teens experience heightened anxiety as they return to school, particularly ever since the COVID pandemic, studies have shown.
As they stock up on classroom supplies, clothes and shoes, parents and caregivers may also want to brush up on techniques to ease the back-to-school jitters. Here are tips and insights.
What are the causes of back-to-school anxiety?
Hannah Keeley, a Virginia-based parenting and lifestyle expert and mom of seven with a background in behavioral therapy and neuroscience, said that most cases of back-to-school jitters stem from three main fears.
One is fear of the unknown.
“With many kids, it’s the ‘not knowing’ that is making them nervous,” Keeley said. “One way for parents to help their children lessen this anxiety is to create some solid evidence for them to settle into.”
This might mean scheduling an orientation or visiting the school, finding some other students in the same class and scheduling a playdate, or simply making an introduction if the kids are older.
Another trigger is fear of separation, she said, which can affect kids of any age.
“When my kids were little, I would allow them to have ‘goof-off days’ with me twice a year … The only rule was to have fun and do anything we wanted. It yielded special memories.”
“From a young child going to kindergarten to an older teen going off to college, separation is a very stress-inducing situation,” Keeley said.
Spending special time together before school begins and throughout the year can help kids feel secure in their relationship with their parents, she suggested.
“When my kids were little, I would allow them to have ‘goof-off days’ with me twice a year, where the only rule was to have fun and do anything we wanted,” she said.
“It yielded special memories and deep relationship security.”
Finally, many kids become stressed over a fear of exclusion.
“Being left out is a significant fear for all people, and it has a tendency to rear its ugly head right before school begins,” said Keeley.
“This fear is especially heightened during the middle-school years,” she added.
“With many kids, it’s the ‘not knowing’ that is making them nervous.”
To help put children at ease, she suggested helping them “curate” their image so they feel more confident. That could mean getting them a particular backpack, a certain pair of shoes or perhaps just a fresh haircut.
“Also, continually build up their self-image [of] who they are so they can feel just as confident inside as outside,” Keeley said.
Dr. Judith Joseph, a board-certified psychiatrist and medical advisor at Sloomoo Institute, a New York-based center for sensory play for kids, shared her top five actionable tips for easing and preventing back-to-school anxiety.
Make sure everyone in the family actively prepares for the back-to-school date, whether it’s the first day of daycare or the first day of high school, suggested Joseph.
“Everyone in the home should start talking about it and putting visual reminders on calendars (both digital and paper) so that the kids’ brains get exposed to this day gradually over time,” she told Fox News Digital.
“This time of ‘exposure’ tells the brain that this date is coming, and it calms the fight-or-flight signals in the body, which are triggered by the unknown.”
Stick to a routine
Have a set time for wake-up and bedtime and try to keep the day as similar as possible for the first couple of weeks of school, Joseph recommended.
“Set a breakfast time, a commute plan, a homework time, a decompression time and a time to prepare for the next day (setting out clothes, preparing lunch boxes, etc.),” she said. “Stick to this as much as possible.”
If kids plan to be involved in after-school activities, Joseph said to consider starting those several weeks after school begins. This will help prevent both the child and the parent from becoming overwhelmed or burned out.
Get on their level with soothing sensory play
“If you’re struggling to get your kids to talk about their day or how they’re feeling, try getting on their level with a soothing sensory activity that you can both participate in,” Joseph suggested.
The children she works with love to play with slime, for example — which relaxes the fight-or-flight response and brings them into the moment by engaging four out of the five senses.
“When parents participate in play, the barriers of age come down and conversation kicks in,” she said.
Have them write in a ‘worry’ journal
As a short-form version of cognitive behavioral therapy, Joseph suggested having kids write down the three things they worry about the most, and then make a list of “evidence” as to why these worries won’t happen.
“Take care of yourself and work with your therapist, your faith leader, your personal trainer or your physician to manage your anxiety.”
“These anxieties are not typically rooted in reality, and they are due to negative thinking or automatic thoughts,” she told Fox News Digital.
Another strategy is to have kids write down three things they’re grateful for, she said.
After kids have written in the journal, parents can have them do a relaxing activity such as deep breathing or playing with tactile stimuli, like slime or Play-Doh.
‘Take care of yourself’
Children are sensitive to how their parents react and respond to stress, and they often mirror their behavior, noted Jones.
She offered the following advice: “Take care of yourself and work with your therapist, your faith leader, your personal trainer or your physician to manage your anxiety.”
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