It’s late August, the time of year when parents often feel excited about their kids going back to school! It’s a time of learning about new teachers and buying school supplies. However, many of the children that I work with have conflicted feelings about going back to school. Whether they are returning to the same school they’ve been attending for several years, or going into middle or high school for the first time, this transition is a significant adjustment.
The end of summer can be a time of high anxiety for many kids. At a bare minimum, they will have to adjust to a new teacher and classroom of students, new topics to learn, and new schedules to follow. The good news is, there are things you can do, as a parent, to help your child feel prepared for the upcoming academic year. Additionally, there are signs to keep an eye out for to see if your child is experiencing significant anxiety, and may need the help of a counselor or psychologist to manage the emotional stressors, and transition to the new school year.
To begin with, let’s take a moment to consider the “typical” school experience in contrast to summertime. This can help parents understand what aspects of the transition may be anxiety provoking for your child. The school setting is a structured experience with short bursts of unstructured time (e.g., lunch, recess, passing period for older students). This schedule is not something students have control over, rather they learn to follow bells and schedules. While some children thrive in this setting, others need more time to transition, struggle with feelings of loss of control, or can be sensitive to the loud, energetic, crowded, unstructured times (e.g., lunch). This is very different from most children’s experience over the summer, when he or she likely had a more relaxing schedule and may have attended camp where there is often more choice and alignment between the child’s interests and the activities.
For some children, academics (the primary goal of school), is an added stressor, beyond the social and logistical challenges stated earlier. As a student, particularly in middle and high school, your work is routinely evaluated. Some children and teens experience worry and anxiety about judgement, especially on tests, papers, or presentations. This performance anxiety can be challenging and distracting in the school setting. For these students, the school environment can be a stressful place.
With these potential challenges in mind, let’s consider some things you, as a parent, can do to help your child prepare for going back to school.
Begin conversations with your child. Ask about what he or she expects from the new school year, and discuss any specific worries your child may have. Do your best to listen and validate his or her experience, before jumping to solutions, or trying to convince your child that his or her concerns are, “nothing to worry about.” This often leaves children frustrated, feeling that their parents “don’t care” or “just don’t get it.” Let your kids know that their feelings are normal and starting something new can be difficult at any age!
Many children with school anxiety, worry about what their new teacher will be like, how they will find their classes, and, more generally, they fear the unknown. For these students, orientations and school walk throughs—which may be part of a pre-planned back to school program or individualized—can be very helpful. This allows the child to become familiar with the new setting, thus decreasing anxiety and helping the child feel prepared for the new year.
For some children, shopping for school supplies can help them feel a sense of control and excitement for the new academic year. For these children, picking out supplies provides a sense of ownership over their materials and their learning. At home, you and your child can work together to set up specific areas that promote learning and organization. This may include a location for backpacks and papers, and a distraction-free zone for homework. Once again, many children respond best when they are a part of this planning, helping to build a sense of self-efficacy and competence.
Anxiety often stems from a fear of the unknown, or a sense of anticipation about something we may feel is out of our control. Therefore, preparing now, as discussed above, can help your child prepare for a successful, and less stressful, transition back to school!
As a child psychologist, I want to briefly mention some of the signs that may indicate it is time to seek professional help. Please feel free to go back to some of my former blog posts for more information on a particular topic.
If your child’s behavior caused chronic trouble in school last year, or disrupted family life during the academic year, it is important to monitor his or her behavior, and seek support early in the new year, before these patterns become further engrained. Disruptive, explosive, or defiant behavior (referred to as “externalizing behaviors”) can be related to underlying anxiety, low mood and irritability, trauma, or frustration from undiagnosed learning problems. Other children become quiet, and may isolate themselves, avoid peers, or seem uninterested in activities they used to enjoy (referred to as “internalizing behaviors”). These quieter changes are often also related to underlying social-emotional challenges.
Seeking therapy or counseling for children can be very helpful for both externalizing and internalizing behaviors. A mental health professional, like myself, can work with you and your child to address the underlying issues, as well as potential behavioral concerns. If you or your child’s teachers suspect that attention and learning challenges are a piece of the puzzle behind your child’s behavior, you may want to seek testing to provide insight into your child’s strengths and challenges. Early intervention can help your child experience success in the new academic year! Please don’t hesitate to contact me for more information at 703-825-0502.
Shira Gottlieb, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Dr. Gottlieb is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her B.A. in psychology, with a minor in neurobiology, from Harvard University, and her Psy.D. from the George Washington University. Dr. Gottlieb utilizes an integrative approach to therapy, incorporating both CBT and Family Systems techniques. Treatment goals are discussed with the child/adolescent and family, and are developed with the individual child's needs in mind. For more information on Dr. Gottlieb please visit her website at http://www.gottliebchildpsych.com/