Back to school time signals new beginnings: new classes, teachers, and friends, and a change in the daily routine. But for some children, starting the school year can be difficult, even distressing. This is especially true for children at key transition points, such as the beginning of kindergarten, middle, or high school. Fear of the unknown can lead to high anxiety, which depending on a child’s age, may manifest itself as verbalized worries, tearfulness at separation times, irritability, refusal to go to school, or physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. Here are some tips for helping your child start a new school or get back into the school year routine.
For new kindergarteners and young children:
• Check to see if the school has an open house or another time when you and your child can visit before the school year begins, see the classroom, and meet the teacher. Getting a sneak peek can help children who are fearful because they don’t know what to expect. While you are there, help the child ask questions about the planned daily routine.
• Allow your child to make some choices about what he/she will wear, the color of his/her backpack, etc. Having some control in feared situations can greatly reduce anxiety.
• When you drop your child off for school, don’t linger too long, even if he or she becomes somewhat tearful. Hanging around can send your child the message that either you don’t think he or she can handle the situation alone or you have some doubts about whether he or she is safe. This “lingering behavior” is a primary contributor of school anxiety in young children. Rest assured that teachers of young children are well equipped to handle first-day jitters.
• Use a transitional object, if necessary. Just as we are comforted by medals and other sacramentals that remind us of the presence of God and the saints, children can be comforted by a reminder that you are with them, emotionally if not physically. Perhaps a picture of mom or dad in their pocket or a new watch given on the first day of school “to remind you I am thinking about you every hour today.”
For middle/high school children:
• Reflect your child’s feelings and remind him or her that the other kids starting middle or high school are in the same situation and likely have some of the same feelings, even if they don’t show it. It’s natural to be a little nervous in new situations.
• Send the message, “I know you can handle this,” both with your words and your actions. After reflecting feelings, be firm about school attendance and independence. Don’t walk into the school with your child on the first day, even if they say they want you to,. Doing so can make an awkward first impression on preteen and teen-age peers.
• Encourage children to come up with their own self-affirmations, reminders they can say to themselves when they begin to feel anxious. Some children use phrases like, “I know I can do this,” or perhaps even a simple Scripture verse, such as “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13, RSV).
For all children:
• Make an effort to connect with families at your parish who have children of the same age. If your children can meet some of the kids who will be attending the same school, they will at least see some familiar faces on that first day.
• Be a stickler about reported illness. If children say they cannot go to school because they don’t feel well, make sure it’s really serious enough to stay home. Are they running a fever? Have they been vomiting? If they are sick, they should be resting in bed, not playing video games or watching TV.
New experiences and relationships are part of what makes life enjoyable and meaningful. As we communicate the joy of new beginnings to our children, let us impart the message of the angel Gabriel, “Be not afraid!” (Luke 2 :10, RSV).