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Winifred Lender: Helping Your Child Cope with Back-to-School Anxiety

Starting school entails big changes for a child: a change of routine from the more relaxed summer schedule, separation from parents, academic demands, homework and social pressure.  These changes can lead a child to feel anxious.

Children’s anxiety about starting school falls on a continuum with some children showing no anxiety, others report transient “butterflies” in their stomach, while some demonstrate more persistent worry and rumination. In its extreme form, anxiety about going to school can lead to insomnia, persistent headaches, stomach upset and even difficulty breathing.

It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of children and teenagers have some form of an anxiety disorder, many of which relate to academic performance and peer relations. Helping a child minimize anxiety about the back-to-school process entails preparation, modeling and validation. Preparing in advance for the start of school by developing a bedtime and wake-up time that will allow your child to transition easily back to school is very important. Sleep is essential for academic and social success and is one of the best ways to help your child manage anxiety.

If your child has been going to sleep late during the summer, you will need to gradually move their bed time earlier and may need to start waking them up in the morning to allow them to develop a new pattern of sleep that will fit with their school schedule. Specific tips for sleep scheduling follow in the recommendations section.

Preparation for school can also involve visiting the school, spending time on the playground, meeting new teachers and reviewing the new school schedule. Organizing play dates with friends or peers who will be in your child’s class can be helpful, too. Children will benefit from these activities that make the new and unknown more familiar. In addition, preparing for a transition to school that gradually phases in after-school activities can ease the transition to school.

Preparation for school also involves minimizing decisions a child will need to make the morning before school starts as this can lead to anxiety. Early in the afternoon the day prior to school, ensure that the backpack is all ready and near the door, clothes for school are laid out and a breakfast option is selected. Organizing and practicing the morning routine to ensure your child will have enough time to eat a good breakfast and feel prepared to leave the house is also essential. Children who are hungry, rushed or feel as though they are not prepared for school may experience more anxiety. Consider a trial run the day before school starts where the family gets ready as though there was school and then goes out for a special activity such as a walk or breakfast.

Modeling is another important part of supporting your child’s transition to a new school year. As a parent, you can model a calm, organized approach to the new school year and to new activities in general. Verbalize to your child how you prepare for new events and focus on the positive elements of  new experiences. Work on minimizing your own stress related to the change of schedule so you can demonstrate a clam approach to the transition.

Validation is another important feature of easing your child’s transition back to school. Negating a child’s anxiety and fears about school can cause more anxiety, but validating that your child’s anxiety is real and that many children experience anxiety related to school is helpful. You should listen to your child’s concerns and help him or her problem solve around activities that could target the fears. Remind your child of instances when he or she was anxious yet overcame the anxiety. Reminding your child that anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and that the best way to combat anxiety is to engage in the activity that creates the anxiety can also be helpful.

While the back-to-school process can cause anxiety for many children, a successful transition to a new school year is empowering. The ability to enter a new situation, perform well and find some pleasure in something that might have initially been anxiety producing is a growth-enhancing experience.

Wishing you and your child a positive back-to-school experience!

» Transition to a school sleep schedule that allows for sufficient sleep (11 to 13 hours for elementary school children and 8.5 to 9.25 hours for middle and high school children).

» Move bedtime earlier by 10 to 15 minutes each night until you arrive at the time that allows for enough sleep prior to the school wake-up time.

» Schedule quiet digital-free time 45 minutes before bed to encourage a child to relax in order to facilitate better sleep.

» Consider visiting the school, playground and teachers prior to the start of school.

» Review the new school schedule.

» Organize play dates with school friends.

» Try a trial run the day before school starts where the family wakes up and gets ready according to the school start time and then engages in some fun activity.

» Organize the backpack, school outfit and select a breakfast option the afternoon before the first day of school.

» Consider gradually phasing in after-school activities when school starts to allow your child to transition to school prior to adding on the additional activities.

» Model calmness and a positive view of new experiences. Try not to show any anxiety you may feel.

» Validate your child’s anxiety as a normal part of entering a new experience and remind her of how they she overcome anxiety before.

» If your child is having significant difficulty sleeping due to her anxiety about school or appears to be persistently worried about school in a way that impacts their happiness, consider seeking professional help.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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