By: Avy Stock, PsyD
It’s That Time Again…
School supply sales, summer reading lists and pre-season sports practices are all reminders that your 2-month vacation is coming to an end. For students of all ages, transitioning back to school can be associated with a host of emotions ranging from anticipation and discomfort to anxiety and worry. In our practice, we are often talking to families about how to prepare and manage this back-to-school period.
Strategies to Help Anxious Children Prepare for the New School Year
- Maintain Structure – It is essential to maintain structure and routine throughout the summer. As much as kids and teens want to relax and move away from the busyness of the school year, camps, part-time jobs and volunteer work provides a sense of consistency and predictability as well as opportunities to develop other important skill areas.
- Sleep Hygiene – We know that sleep is crucial to healthy emotional and physical development. It is just as important to maintain regular and age-appropriate sleep schedules during the summer as it is during the school year. Summertime does allow us to be flexible with wakeup times so we recommend that 1-2 weeks before the start of school, you work with your child to adjust bedtime and wakeup times accordingly.
- Summer Reading – No one wants to spend their summer doing homework so it’s easy to wait until the last minute to complete summer reading and math packets. Completing the work in small chunks over the course of the entire summer not only prevents last minute freak-outs but helps to reinforce the academic skills learned during the previous school year.
- Getting Reacquainted – At times, kids and teens don’t want to talk about school during the summer because they don’t want to be reminded of the unpleasantries of school. However, we know that avoidance often contributes to an increase in anxiety. Therefore, we suggest talking directly about aspects of school that they are looking forward to as well as components of school that may cause distress. Simple things you can do include regularly checking school email accounts, driving by or visiting your school building, getting together with school friends, attending orientation and pre-season sports practices and using a calendar with a start date to provide visual reminders of the upcoming transition.
- Maintain a Confident Stance – It’s hard to see our kids experiencing unpleasant emotions but it’s important to remember that discomfort, and at times worry, is a feeling that commonly arises around transitions. It is normal for kids and teens to be anxious about the uncertainty associated with the beginning of the school year, such as not knowing who their teachers are going to be, if their friends are going to be in their class or how to navigate their new school building. Even though our instinct is to want to provide answers in order to make what is uncertain, certain, it is more important that we convey confidence in our child’s ability to manage the typical ups and downs of the beginning of the school year.
- Clear Expectations – It is essential to be clear about expectations. No matter how high our child’s anxiety is, how tired they are because they didn’t get enough sleep or whether they didn’t complete their summer class work, they are expected to attend school every day, on time. Starting with clear expectations at the beginning of the school year, communicates that school is the child or teen’s responsibility and that while at times, it may be difficult to go, we know they can work through the challenging moments.
When to Seek Help
Often we get asked how to distinguish typical levels of anxiety from anxiety that warrants professional attention. Anxiety can manifest in a number of ways, such as physical complaints, difficulty sleeping and an increase in irritability. While some of this is to be expected, if you begin to see drastic changes in your child or teen’s functioning in school, at home, and with friends, we recommend contacting your school guidance counselor, pediatrician or a mental health professional in your community for further assessment.
It is important to remember that children and teens are naturally resilient and are more equipped than we often realize. Navigating the daily hassles associated with the beginning of the school year is yet another opportunity to build self-esteem and stronger coping strategies.
If your child is struggling, we can help. Learn more about how we work with children at The Ross Center.