Ahh, the new school year. Freshly sharpened pencils, brightly colored supplies, that clean new backpack. Not to mention the joy of figuring out which friends will be in class. It’s enough to get any child excited about starting school, right? Well, not so fast.
Returning to school after summer break creates a wide range of feelings in even the most easygoing child. Worries about homework, whether new classmates will be nice, or how strict the teacher is means most children experience some level of anxiety about the upcoming year.
And for children starting school for the first time or transitioning to middle or high school, fears can be even more intense.
As with any fear, facing anxiety about starting school provides many growth opportunities. Children develop skills needed for mastering future transitions, making new friends, and problem-solving, to name a few.
Check out these powerful strategies for taming back-to-school anxiety and finding that excitement again.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our FREE Calming Strategies for Children. Does your child need help to regulate their big emotions? You and your child can sit together and circle the coping strategies they can try next time they need to feel calmer.
The summer months are the perfect time to lay the groundwork for a successful year.
Establish and Maintain a Connection to the School
Find out what your child’s building has to offer, and be sure to attend a few fun events together.
These may include:
- Summer library hours
- Camps or other extracurricular activities
- Back-to-school nights, tours, or open houses
- Visiting playgrounds or fields for unstructured playtime or meet-ups with friends
- Sending postcards or emails to last year’s teacher about summer activities
Prior to starting kindergarten, one of the most impactful things we did was to enroll our daughter in a summer art camp at her school. Her confidence soared as she became familiar with the building during the (relatively) quiet summer months, met several other incoming kindergartners, and developed a sense of belonging that carried her through the year.
Initiate Early Discussions About the Upcoming School Year
Books like Noni is Nervous by Heather Hartt-Sussman and Mae’s First Day of School by Kate Berube are excellent options for getting the ball rolling. Older children will appreciate Stanley Will Probably Be Fine by Sally J. Pla, a tale about tackling many kinds of anxiety.
Let Them Know it is Normal to Worry
Says Munson, “Research shows that the first week of school is really tough for children, no matter the age.” Simply knowing to expect some jitters early on, and even hearing about yours, can be very reassuring.
Help Them Build Resilient Mindsets
Also, tune in to a few episodes of the Big Life Kids Podcast together to learn more about facing challenges. Our podcast brings growth mindset to LIFE! Learn about real-life people and kids who are living big lives, believing in themselves, and overcoming obstacles!
2. Identify Specific Fears
Back-to-school anxiety is common, but the worries themselves are as varied as each child. When delving into specific fears, be sure to phrase questions positively (“Do you know who you might play with at recess?” versus “Are you worried no one will play with you?”) to keep the discussion growth-centered.
Next, consider some of the most commonly-reported school fears. If your child shares he is worried about…
- Keep up with summer learning (read daily, complete teacher review packets, keep a journal of summer adventures for writing practice)
- Discuss examples of when he overcame past obstacles (a difficult test, unclear homework directions) and the skills he used to do it
- Ask what your child would say to someone else having the same worry about performance, and write it down as a reminder
- Arrange playdates with old and new classmates
- Create a list of 3 ways to make a new friend
- Do role-plays to practice asking someone to play
- Review strategies for handling unkind or bullying behaviors (walking away, asking an adult for help)
Having the “Right Stuff”
- Review class supply list
- Make an inventory of things they need (clothing, school supplies, etc.)
- Encourage learning a new joke, a magic trick, or another type of icebreaker to engage peer interest (rather than focusing on having the perfect outfit or accessories)
Separating from You
- Listen and acknowledge their feelings (“I know that’s hard” versus “There’s nothing to be scared of”)
- Read classics like The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn or The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and discuss how your love stays with them wherever they go
- For more significant cases, contact the school counselor or principal to discuss hand-off strategies during the first days or weeks. Ask about opportunities for especially nervous students (lunch groups, recess buddies, or regular check-ins)
Don't forget to download our FREE Calming Strategies for Children. You and your child can sit together and circle the coping strategies they can use when they need to feel calmer.
3. Focus on Positives
Once fears are identified and acknowledged, it’s time to focus on reducing them. A 2011 study at the University of Chicago revealed that simply writing about school fears increases positive emotion and even academic performance.
Worry Thoughts and Happy Thoughts
Start by grabbing a piece of construction paper, and label one side “Worry Thoughts” and the other “Happy Thoughts.” Draw a line down the center of the page. Then, have your child either write or draw each individual fear under the left-hand column. Spend some time brainstorming a variety of positive coping statements on the other side.
This could look like:
“I don’t know what the rules are” / “My new teacher will go over all the new rules when we get there”
“I won’t know anyone on the bus” / “I am good at making new friends”
“My teacher won’t like me” / ”He is on my side and will look out for me.”
“I am scared” / ”I am brave.”
Name the FUN things at School
Another simple way to shift mindset is by naming all the fun things that happen at school that can’t happen anywhere else. Talk about how access to friends, field trips, recess, and participation in school clubs or after-school activities are part of the deal!
Praise for Planning
Remind your child that all the thinking they’ve done means they’re ready for the year. A 2000 study revealed that when children focus on the specific challenges or problems that may arise at school, they are both happier and perform better during the year. Worry itself can sometimes have positive results!
4. Stay Connected
Often, the simplest strategies are the most powerful. Consider adding one of the following acts to your morning routine to maintain the connection with your child all day and soothe worries:
- Draw reminders on hands (a heart or kiss)
- Give them a worry stone or bead to keep in a pocket and rub when feeling nervous
- Apply fragrances like your perfume or lotion to hands/arms that can be sniffed during the day. The more the scent wears off, the closer they are to seeing you again!
- Put your photo in their backpack
- Place encouraging notes or messages in their lunch box.
Some families choose to celebrate the start of school with a “last hurrah.” These rituals can include a special dinner together, an outing in nature, or a family costume party. Let children generate ideas for what this special time could look like, and give it a try!
Even more importantly, be sure to carve out a regular time and place to talk as the school year begins. A family meeting time, complete with your undivided attention, means that your connection will be sustained and strengthened during all the challenges of the coming year.
If you need additional ideas and support to help quell back-to-school anxiety, check out our popular Growth Mindset Conversation Cards to help build family connections. This beautifully illustrated deck of cards offers 52 interesting questions to help kids and grown-ups share thoughtful discussions about growth mindset, kindness, resilience, gratitude, and more.