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School Anxiety - Take the Nerves Out of Back to School

Back-to-school is my favorite time of the year; the air is crisp and there is promise of a new start. I always feel like September is the real ‘New Year.’ Most children see September as a fresh start - a chance to start over and fix past mistakes. However, with that hope of a fresh new start comes a lot of pressure. Children begin to focus on their social groups: ‘Will these new kids like me?’ ‘Has the summer changed my friends and now they won’t want to hang out with me?’

Children spend roughly 50 per cent of their day (waking hours) in school. Thus, it only makes sense that for kids, school is pretty much the centre of their world, and can be a source of joy as well as anxiety. In fact, anxiety is one of the most common health concerns for children, and I see this every day in my psychological practice.

I would like to share my top three tips with you on how to talk to your kids about and how to beat school anxiety. As adults, we often think that we remember what it feels like to be a kid or a teen going through those back-to-school jitters. However, as we experience painful events, our brain blocks us from fully remembering these events and edits our memories. Therefore, the best support comes from kids’ peers (children in similar situations or an older sibling) that can encourage your child to openly talk about their fears and anxiety.

Tip #1: Take out the guesswork’ of what will happen at school. For younger children, take them to their class prior to school starting. Even drive the school bus route to show your child what they can expect on their first day back. Talk about the structure of the school day.

For older children, if they are going to a new school, I would suggest still taking them to the school prior to the first day of class - think of it as a ‘preview’ day! Many schools now offer to pick up students’ study materials (i.e., textbooks) before the first day of class in order to better prepare students. Talk about whom your child can call or talk to at the school in case of an emergency, the resources available at the school in case of an emergency, etc.

Tip #2: Help your child ease into their social circle. If this is your child’s first school experience, it is always a great idea to set up some playdates with other kids from their class before school starts or during the first few weeks of school. This allows the children to build familiarity and an alliance with their classmates, reducing the anxiety of having to leave their parents for the first time.

For older children, you can help your child set up some social outings, like going to the mall or going to a movie theatre, etc. Movie nights are the easiest as they don’t require as much one-on-one conversation, yet give the children a medium to bond over.

Tip #3: Schedule downtime (relaxation) and regulate sleep. As children’s anxiety amps up, it is easy to think that if you keep them busy, they won’t have time to worry.  However, we now know that if children are too busy, it can actually increase their anxiety. Ensure that your child has a daily break where they enjoy some quiet and have time to themselves. Think of it this way, it’s a mini-break from being overstimulated by noise, learning, and emotions. And ensure that your kid is getting regular sleep by establishing a nighttime routine and installing an alarm clock in their bedroom that is easy to use. 

Marina Agafonov, MA, works at Serenity Now Wellness Centre. You can reach her at 403-454-7600, email marina@serenitynowwellness.ca, or visit serenitynowwellness.ca

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