Back-to-School Anxiety: Signs of School Phobia & How to Help

Back-to-School Anxiety: Signs of School Phobia & How to Help
Anxious child getting on school bus

In this article, you will learn about:

  • The specific signs and symptoms of school anxiety
  • How to help children with school anxiety
  • When to seek professional treatment

Back to School

For most of America, August is back-to-school month. For many parents, it’s a busy month full of their normal, daily responsibilities of work and home, plus planning last-minute vacations or activities, and getting kids ready for their first day of school: shopping, organizing schedules, attending orientations, and teacher meets. 

For many students, however, these moments are something they’d like to avoid altogether. Once the back-to-school ads start rolling and the emails from administrators and teachers start arriving, a familiar anxiety creeps in. 

For some children, these may just be normal back-to-school jitters, but for others it’s a debilitating phobia. It’s a crushing worry and fear that needs support and intervention. Here’s how to recognize school anxiety and how to help children suffering from it.

What Is School Anxiety – Signs & Symptoms

School anxiety, or what’s also known as school phobia, is a specific type of anxiety disorder that can often be associated with other mental health disorders such as depression, PTSD, social anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, learning disorders, and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

While most children get a bit nervous about going back to school, school anxiety is more than just first-day concerns – what to wear, where your classes are, and who will be in them. While these normal worries tend to dissipate over the first few days for most, for others they are a paralyzing fear, and it quite often impacts school performance and attendance.

This type of phobia can be related to associated mental health disorders, but it can also be caused by separation anxiety, bullying in or outside of school, cultural diversity issues, or a traumatic event. The traumatic event may not even be directly related to school – it could be the death of a loved one or moving to a new location. Regardless, school anxiety can be physically and psychologically debilitating.

Here are signs and symptoms of school anxiety:

  • Frequent absences or refusing to go to school
  • Claiming to be sick to avoid going to school
  • Crying spells 
  • Clinginess
  • Irritability, not following school rules, or temper tantrums – acting out
  • Feelings of fear and worry
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or sadness
  • Frequent trips to the school nurse
  • Stomachaches and/or nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness, sweating, or shaking
  • Rapid heartbeat and/or shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite
  • Poor academic performance, not turning in homework, or difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawing from social activities or not participating in classroom group work
  • Poor appetite

If you recognize any of these signs in a student or child, it’s important to seek ways to help and support them.

How to Help Children with School Anxiety

A good first step in helping children with school anxiety is knowing what not to do. Parents, caregivers, and teachers should not ignore the issue or write it off as normal kid or teenager stuff that they will eventually get over. They should also not bribe, threaten or argue with children. 

Like any other phobia, school anxiety needs compassionate intervention and proven methods that can help them manage their feelings and behaviors and, hopefully, thrive and succeed.

Tips for Managing School Phobia

  • Parents should consult with school personnel who can help create a plan for mitigating and managing the students’ stress and anxiety. This may be making adjustments to the child’s schedule or classroom environment, or it may be adding in-school and after-school support or activities.
  • At home, parents play an important role in helping their children cope with school anxiety. 
    • Be present, and ensure open communication about fears and worries or anything troubling them at school.
    • Lead by example. Model good behaviors in dealing with stress and conflict.
    • Stay involved with their lives – assist them with schoolwork and stay up-to-date about things going on in the classroom, or anything related to academic assignments, activities, and peers.
    • Before school starts, establish healthy routines so your child can prepare and become accustomed to the schedule. Ensure good nutrition too.
    • If you can, arrange play dates before school starts with other children in the same school. This way, your child will see a familiar face or two on the first day.
    • Encourage older children and teens to keep a journal. Writing down feelings and experiences helps sort things out.
    • Monitor social media activity if your child has access to these platforms. Social media can have a strong impact on teens’ moods and behavior, so make sure it is used safely and responsibly.
    • Communicate ways to handle stressful transitions in life – like breathing techniques, exercise, enjoying nature, and creative pursuits.

When to Seek Treatment for School Anxiety

If you feel like you’ve explored all your options at home and school and exhausted all your resources, don’t give up. Instead, seek treatment from a qualified, experienced, and compassionate professional who can, through scientifically-proven methods, help your child with their school phobia. Especially if after about a month symptoms have not alleviated or, in fact, seem to be worsening, it’s important to seek treatment.

At The Ross Center, we employ proven methods of cognitive behavioral theory to treat all types of anxiety, including school anxiety. Our clinicians are experienced in teaching children and parents how to better manage anxiety and situations or environments that cause anxiety.

We also employ evidence-based treatment specifically for parents, called SPACE, which helps caregivers learn how to support and respond to a child dealing with an anxiety disorder. This has proven effective in improving children’s symptoms. In fact, a recent study on SPACE found 87% of students saw a decrease in severe anxiety – similar to results typically seen from children receiving therapy themselves.

If you want to learn more about what we treat, how we treat, or to schedule an appointment, please visit The Ross Center online at https://www.rosscenter.com/

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