Easing Back-to-School Jitters

by | Aug 16, 2010 | Parenting, School Success and Learning, Self-Reliance and Agency

Parenting advice I shared with Matt Lauer this morning on the TODAY show: ways to help reduce kid’s back to school jitters, minimize anxieties and ease those transitions so they can focus on the real subject: learning!

Heading back to school is exciting for most kids but can be a bit traumatic for others. It’s only natural for children to feel a little anxious especially if you’ve just moved to town, are changing schools, repeating a grade, have never left mom’s side, are a shyer-more sensitive-type kid or didn’t have a successful experience last year. There are also big adjustments to make like learning the school rules, finding your way around, getting on the right bus or getting along with other kids. And if you’re off to kindergarten for the first time there is an even bigger worry: “Will mommy really come and pick me up?”

Though parents can’t be there to solve every problem and ease every worry (nor should we be), there are things to help your child feel more secure and make those goodbyes be smoother and less stressful. Here are four steps to ease the transition to a new school and make the start of this new school year be smoother for your younger child or tween as well as their parents. Choose the step or steps that best meet your child’s needs, find the tips that will work best for you and your child and then implement.

4 Steps to Reduce Back-to-School Jitters

STEP 1. Listen to Your Child’s School Worries and Anticipate Concerns

Make sure you set aside time to chat with your child. Convey that worries are normal—other kids have the same back to school anxiety pangs and they usually wade away in a few days. You might share your own back to school worries from “years” ago. Most typical back to school worries involve these issues: “Will I be safe (and not get lost or get on the wrong bus)?” “Will I fit in (and be accepted by the other kids and find friends)?” “Will I be capable (and able to do the work)?” “Will the teacher be nice (and not yell or be too hard)?”  “Will Mommy come back?” Here are a few tips when you’re having those talks:

Don’t trivialize the fear. Keep in mind that as much as your child’s worries may seem unrealistic, they are real to him. So don’t try to talk your child out of his concerns. Instead, thank him for sharing.

Find a book to help younger kids open up a dialogue. Read a book to help your child open up her feelings and learn others have similar fears. A few favorite books for younger children: The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn; First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg; The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing; The Night Before First Grade, by Natasha Wing, or Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate.

Offer solutions for worries. Here are a few solutions to common kid worries:

Younger child school worries and solutions:

  • “I won’t remember the bus number.” Solution: Write bus number on index card and pin it to inside of his backpack. Find out if your child’s school has practice bus rides.
  • “I’ll have an accident.” Solution: Promise to show her the bathroom that is in the kindergarten.

Older kid school worries and solutions:

  • “I’ll get lost: that middle school is so big!” Solution: Promise to walk the path with your child several times until he feels secure.
  • “The teacher doesn’t know I’m allergic to peanuts.” Solution: Show the child the notes you wrote to the nurse, secretary and teacher and explain how you will go to the school the date before school starts.
  • “I won’t remember my locker combination.” Solution: Have him write the combination on the inside of his backpack with a sharpie pen.
  • “What if I can’t remember which class to go to and the assignments?” Solution: Help your tween pick out a small agenda or organizer book and paste the schedule in the front of the book.

Share “bigger worries” with the teacher. A parent’s military deployment, a job loss, an illness, divorce or a traumatic experience with a bully are the types of issues that could impact your child’s learning. Make an appointment to share the information with the counselor and teacher so they can offer support. You’ll be much more effective in easing your child’s stress by working together as a team.

STEP 2. Help Your Child Learn School Routines and Lay of the Land

Boosting your child’s comfort zone about a new location and peers helps reduce jitters. One hint: Don’t over-hype the new school or teacher. “What a gorgeous campus!” or “You’re going to be soooooo happy here!” type of comments don’t ease jitters. In fact, they can backfire and cause more anxiety. So don’t build up false expectations so much as to disappoint your child if things fall short of your build-up. Keep your excitement to yourself. Here are ways to help your child feel more secure about a new school or transition:

Visit the school. A few days before the big send off, take your child for a tour so he can find key places like his classroom, playground, school office, cafeteria, water fountain, lockers, and restroom. A larger campus can be intimidating even to an adolescent-especially if your teen has multiple classes in different locations so anticipate or identify those spots on his “worry list” and make sure he visits those areas

Take an online tour. Many schools have websites that give online tours showing not only the school layout but also what the students look and dress like.

Print a map and schedule. Obtain a map of the school (go online) and print out his class schedule. Then help your child walk that campus until he feels secure.

Get a school handbook. The more your child is aware of school rules and rituals the more comfortable he’ll be. Check the school’s website or stop by the school or district office and ask for a school handbook. Then review those rules and schedule with your child. In particular, find out the dress code, bell schedule, school rules as well as the name of the mascot, school motto and colors, and any song.

Find a buddy and teach how to “fit in.” Knowing just one classmate can minimize first day jitters so help your kid learn the name of at least one peer. The two kids don’t have to become soul mates –just acquaintances! Here are a few ways to help your child get acquainted:

  • Do a little sleuthing at playgrounds and parks near the school to see if you can find a child who will be in the same classroom, grade, or school.
  • Ask parents, coaches, church groups, or the local Boys and Girls Club.
  • Get a class list (if possible) from the teacher and set up a play date with a peer before school starts.
  • Ask neighbors for the name and address of a kid on the same bus route.
  • Arrange a car pool so your child feels more secure to go to school with someone.
  • Volunteer to be the room mother, join the PTA, or offer to help the secretary so you can meet moms and dads. They may be able to introduce you to parents who have kids your child’s age.
  • Teach your child the name of at least one adult to go to (in particular the nurse, secretary, principal, teacher) for help as well as where to find them.
  • Rehearse scenarios and role-play specific social problems, like how to meet someone, start up a conversation, ask if you can play in a game, or ask for help from a teacher. Kids learn social skills best if you show and not tell them what to do so practice one new skill at a time until your child feels comfortable.

STEP 3. Prepare for Separation Before the Big Day

Rehearsing a goodbye can help a younger or more sensitive child feel more secure when the big moment really comes. Doing so also helps reduce anxiety so the child knows what to expect. The trick is to ease the back to school fears by gradually stretching your child’s “security” by slowly increasing the number of caregivers and stretch separation times. Find people your child trusts—a babysitter, relative, or friends to be watch your child. Then “come and go” to help your child build confidence, recognize she can survive without you and you do come back. Here are a few ways that might help (depending on the age of your child).

Create a special goodbye. Practice a special private “goodbye” just between the two of you like a secret handshake or special kiss to help your child start to pull away. Then tell her you’ll be using that same goodbye each time you drop him off.

Use a magic pebble. Put a special pebble or keychain with your photo in her pocket and explain that whenever she touches it means you’re thinking of her. You could also cut a small piece of a younger child’s security blanket. Tuck a small square of your child’s security blanket into her backpack or jacket to offer reassurance.

Give your child an inexpensive watch. Mark the exact time with a black marking pen you’ll return on the dial, and then help your child learn to tell just that time. Little ones have a poor concept of time, but often a visual reminder that the moment you will return is coming helps.

Teach: “Talk back to the worry.” Studies found that when kids feel they have some control over what’s happening, anxieties decrease and smooth the transition. Researchers at the University of McGill found that teaching a child to “talk to back to the fear” helps reduce anxiety. The child feels she is in charge of the worry and not the other way around. The trick is to have your child practice telling herself she’ll be okay before facing the actual fear to help build up confidence. She can then use the technique at times you’re not there. For a younger child: “Go away worry, leave me alone. Mommy will come back.”  For an older child: “I won’t let the worry get me. I can handle this.”

STEP 4. Have a Positive Sendoff

A kid’s anxiety increases if you make too big of a deal about leaving or draw out the goodbye. The key is to establish a consistent pattern of saying goodbye so your child knows what ritual to expect, realizes she can make it through the time apart and that you really will return. Here are a few strategies that might help:

Point her to “The first thing.” Not knowing what to do or where to go upon arriving at a new scene increases anxiety. So offer “first thing” suggestions. For a young child: Pointing her towards an activity she enjoys—like a puzzle or blocks. For an older child: Suggest he go to the basketball court that he enjoys or meet up with that acquaintance he met at the park near the water fountain.

Say goodbye and don’t linger. Don’t draw out the goodbye…doing so actually increases anxiety. A matter-of-fact  “See you soon” is better than long-drawn out ones. Just don’t sneak!

Stay calm and put on a happy face. Your child takes cues from you, so be cool to help show confidence in your child. Hold back those tears!

Be on time. Be sure you or your designated caregiver picks your child up when you said and at the exact spot you prearranged. In fact, be there five minutes earlier for the pickup will eliminate the agonizing moments a child has waiting if you’re late. If he cries when you pick him take it as a compliment! It usually means he’s delighted to see you—not that he hates school.

Final thoughts: Learning  to say good-bye is just one more part of growing up and is one more important milestone. Adjustment may take from a day to several weeks, so be patient. For most kids separation anxieties are normal and pass within a few days though they can take longer for others. The key is to watch for a gradual diminishment of school anxiety and separation worries. If the anxiety continue or increasesd, check in with the teacher or counselor to see if they have suggestions to help your child adjust. Here are signs that it may be time to talk with a medical professional because the worry may be something more:

  • Excessive clinginess that persists too long or interferes with a child’s normal activities.
  • Unrealistic worry about potential harm to loved ones or fear they will not return home.
  • Physical symptoms such as stomachache, nausea, shortness of breath or panic attacks before a parent leaves
  • Reoccurring nightmares about separation or reluctance to sleep alone
  • Excessive worry about being lost or going places without a parent
  • Refusal to attend school

All the best for a happy school year.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

For more parenting advice follow me on twitter at Michele Borba or on my daily blog, Dr. Michele Borba’s Reality Check. My upcoming TODAY show segments or media appearances are listed on my homepage, Michele Borba. For specific parenting advice refer to my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries or my other 22 publications