The first day (week, month) of school can be hard on some kids, particularly those entering preschool or kindergarten for the first time. They want to stay with you; they’re scared you won’t come back; they don’t know this grown-up or these other kids — the whole thing can be scary. And chances are, this school year could be even harder on kids (both little and big) as they go back to school after so much time spent isolated at home and suddenly navigating hallways full of masked students and teachers.
But if your kids are about to go back to school in the next week or two, there are some things you can start doing right now to help ease the anxiety they may feel about what’s ahead.
Start exposing them to school now
There’s a reason why students usually have a “kindergarten playdate,” a “back-to-school night,” school tours, or other events before classes begin — because kids need to ease into the experience. They need to know what’s coming, they need to be able to visualise their classroom and recognise their teacher’s face on the first day. Many of those activities may be cancelled this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t recreate some of it for your kids.
“The more opportunities your child has to be exposed to the school, the less strange and scary it’s going to be,” says Dr. Abigail Gewirtz, a child psychologist and author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids.
That’s why Gewirtz recommends parents do whatever they can ahead of time to incrementally expose them to what their school day will look like. If they can’t meet their child’s teacher in person, ask to schedule a video chat to say hello. If you can’t get into the classroom before school starts, ask the teacher for a video tour or a few pictures of the room and/or your child’s desk. Or offer to coordinate a video get-together for the whole class.
If they’ll be riding the bus, take a few practice walks to the bus stop — and if you know other neighbourhood kids who will be at the same stop, invite them along so the kids know who to expect to be waiting with them on the first day. If you’ll be driving or walking them to school, take a few drives/walks now along the route you’ll normally take so they’ll be able to visualise the trip on that first morning.
Practice making their school lunch together and packing up their new lunchbox, let them pick out a few new masks with fun patterns, or talk about what outfits they may want to wear that first week and start setting those clothes aside. Anything you can do to demystify the experience of the first day may help ease their anxiety.
Be open about what to expect
Normally, you’d be able to tell them exactly what to expect in those first few days, weeks and months of school because the schedule would be pretty consistent. This year, schools may open and then close again, kids and teachers may have to quarantine at certain times, and virtual learning may be a continuous work in progress. But just because you don’t have all the answers doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be talking about what to expect.
“It’s important for kids to know what the plan is,” Gewirtz says. “If you don’t know the whole plan, let them know the parts of the plan that you do know.”
Make sure you’re clear about your expectations and — this is very important — if at all possible, don’t give into their anxieties by allowing them to avoid school.
“The key thing to understand about anxiety is when you have something that makes you anxious, avoiding it is very reinforcing,” Gewirtz says. “The more you get to avoid it, the better you feel [in the moment]. But that means when you do have to face it, it’s much harder.”
In other words, if they get so anxious about school that you let them skip day 3, day 4 is going to be much harder because that avoidance made them feel so good. Instead, listen to them, validate their feelings and arm them with coping strategies. Ask them what they think might help them to relax if they’re starting to feel anxious, and then practice that (deep breathing, for example, or squeezing a stress ball). Or talk through how they can work with their teacher to get what they need, such as by asking to visit a calming area of the classroom.
Older kids may be feeling anxious, too
We often focus on little kids when it come to back-to-school anxieties but older elementary, middle school, and high school students may be feeling stressed, too. They haven’t seen their friends in a while and they may have become more withdrawn than usual during the pandemic, or perhaps they’re starting school in a new building and aren’t sure what to expect. They may or may not talk to you about it, so it’s important to watch for signs that they are struggling.
“Look out for symptoms, like kids not sleeping well, being tired in the morning or coming into your room in middle of night, having nightmares,” Gewirtz says. “Some kids may express their anxiety, some don’t. And some get grouchy — that can be a sign.”
Regardless of whether they’re talking about the start of the upcoming school year, you should be. Talk about it over the dinner table or while you’re taking a walk together around the neighbourhood. Ask them what they think it will be like, and acknowledge how strange it must feel to be getting ready to start a school year so unlike any school year any of us have experienced. If you know they’re feeling anxious, help them brainstorm coping strategies.
Check your own stress
Whenever you do have these conversations with your kids, Gewirtz says to be sure you’re in a good frame of mind yourself.
“One thing I always say is kids see the world through the bubble of their family,” she says. “And when parents are stressed, you get stressed kids, as well.”
So look after yourself and manage your own anxiety first so you can more effectively help your kids manage theirs.