School can seem a scary place, especially for a child who tends to worry about things. Expert Dr Katherine Hodson is a clinical psychologist and one of the authors of the parenting book Brighter Futures. Here, Katherine shares her thoughts on why children may become anxious about school as well as tips to get your child ready for the new school term.
With the new term starting, children may have all sorts of worries. For instance, they might worry that they will not get on with their new teacher or that they will be strict. Some children worry that the work will be too hard, or they will not cope with increased responsibility.
Children don’t have the same ability as adults to “reason things out”, so if something is making them worried about school, they may use avoidance as a coping strategy. The problem with avoidance is that it can start small with a day off school with a tummy ache, but can lead to big problems quite quickly.
Here are my top 10 recommendations to get your child off to a positive start if it is worrying:
1. Use every opportunity to talk through your child’s worries, and take each worry in turn. “A problem shared is a problem halved!” Look for a positive thing to balance every worry and be enthusiastic, for example: “You are right that the work will be a little bit harder, but in year 2 (3, 4, etc.) you will also get to do more grown-up things, like learn to play a musical instrument and take part in basketball club. It will be great fun!”
2. It can be really helpful to get your child to tell you about the positives of being in the next year up. Write them down together and keep looking at the list if needed.
3. On the first day make sure your child has had a good breakfast as this helps the body to be in the best place possible to cope with school.
4. Walking to school can really help–it helps to burn off the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol so by the time you arrive they may feel less anxious compared to driving them to the gate.
5. Start to associate school with positives by using rewards. For example:
a) Build a treat into the trip to and from school, such as feeding ducks at the local pond.
b) Put a little treat or supportive note into her/his lunch box.
c) Give her/him a reward for successfully completing a day (or week) at school.
6. When they get home after the first day, if your child is finding the work hard, praise them for their attitude to the work instead of their results. For example, “well done for not giving up” or “I’m proud of you for finishing that sentence”. This will help your kid become more resilient and will ultimately help them succeed more.
7. If a problem develops early on and your child’s worries don’t subside, act fast by discussing your concerns with school and ensuring you are working together to support your child.
8. If your child gets very anxious before school, try to stay in the moment. Anxiety feels very scary to a child, but it will pass after a few minutes. Stay with them, calm and supportive, until it subsides.
9. Ensure you don’t accidentally make the problem worse by “colluding” with your child’s worries. For example, if they tell you they are unwell and you know they are actually okay, it is important to be sympathetic yet firm, and encourage them to go to school.
10. If you feel the problem is getting out of control or your school is not supporting you sufficiently, seek help. Your GP or a school nurse might be the first port of call. A clinical or educational psychologist will be able to offer support and helpful strategies.
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