Going back to school can be hard for kids. As summer wanes and August looms, the end of summer "scaries” can start to build. Maybe it’s not just for kids either…
Back to school anxiety is normal in any year, but maybe this year more than ever. After the horrific shooting in Uvalde this past May, safety concerns are top of mind for just about every parent and kids are likely to feel more anxious returning to hallways and classrooms.
And the past two years in general have been anything but normal. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, most kids spent over a year learning at home, sitting in a familiar environment with classmates and teachers as squares on a screen rather than a full classroom. While many kids may be thrilled by the prospect of being back in the classroom instead of in front of a screen, getting “back to normal” can also likely to feel jarring in other ways - both for kids and parents alike.
Why are kids feeling anxious going back to school?
For one, it’s well known that kids’ mental health has been challenged like never before these past two years. According to a National Survey of Child’s Health conducted last year, over 20% of parents with kids between 5 and 12 reported that their children experienced worsening anxiety and emotional health.
With growing fears of school shootings, general violence, and even raging controversy over school cell phone bans, it's no wonder kids feel anxious. As much as we may try to shield kids from controversy, it’s almost certain that the unknowns and tension adults feel will impact them too.
So what can parents or guardians do? The good news is, there are lots of simple, practical ways to proactively prepare your little ones for this fall. These 6 simple but powerful ideas can help kids not just survive, but thrive this back to school season.
1) Build consistency through routine
Kids are incredibly adaptable! But that doesn’t mean consistency doesn’t matter. As much as possible, try to slowly introduce school rhythms into daily life as back to school gets closer. You might start by adjusting wake up schedules or get kids packing lunches even before the first day. Helping kids understand what to expect and why is always valuable - especially when there’s change!
“Anticipating the hurdles of reentry and carefully structuring the first few weeks of school goes a long way to setting the stage for a successful year,” says Dr. Jerry Bubrick of the Child Mind Institute. One particularly helpful idea for anxious kids: a trial run. Dr. Bubrick suggests doing a drive by, walking the halls, and finding a locker. Walking through the steps ahead of time can be a powerful way to build normalcy into something that may feel scary and unfamiliar.
2) Talk about safety & practice independence
There’s no doubt that a sense of security is critical to healthy childhood development. Studies of child psychology continue to underscore the importance of giving kids consistency and security in both environment and relationships as a stable foundation for building healthy attachment and trust.
A simple way to put this into practice is to talk with your kid about practical ways to stay safe. That might include anything from best-practices for health and hygiene at school to ways to stay connected or call 911 in an emergency. Some kids will likely feel nervous just being away from home and parents this fall. Work to help your kiddos understand daily schedules, how to navigate changes in plans, and ways to communicate throughout the day.
This year in particular, many parents are turning toward kid-safe smartwatches and tracking devices to help kids build confidence while being away from home. Tools like this can help both parents and kids stay connected and create confidence in steps (without diving headlong into the world of smartphones).
“We need to equip them with their own tools to feel safe in the world.” says Dr. Lisa Firestone, columnist for Psychology Today. “This means allowing our kids to have independence and explore and to do as much for themselves as they can.”
3) Encourage confidence with open questions
Kids are constant learners. It’s incredible how much they absorb from the adults in their lives - which makes the ways we engage with our kids so critical. One way we can inadvertently guide kids toward anxiety is to ask leading questions. As Dr. Kathryn Thalken of TheParentingCenter.Org suggests in this helpful interview, try replacing questions like “are you nervous to start school?” with more open ended questions like “how are you feeling about school starting?” These kinds of questions give kids the chance to understand how they feel and for parents to engage in a positive dialogue.
It’s important for kids to know that feeling nervous is ok - lots of people feel nervous about new or unfamiliar things! The opportunity for adults is to help them navigate those feelings and build self-confidence. “By creating an open forum for feelings you give your child a chance to practice making sense of their emotions and put them into words,” says clinical psychologist and professor Gary Gilles.
4) Make sleep a priority
In times of transition, when emotional stability may be more fragile for kids, it’s important to make sure sleep isn’t getting left behind. How much sleep do kids need? The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that kids ages 6-12 should get anywhere from 9-12 hours of sleep per night on average!
“The shift from a summer wake-up schedule to the school year wake-up time can be very challenging for many children,” says Doctor Julia Martin Burch via the Harvard Health blog who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy in children and teens. “Fatigue and crankiness from not getting enough sleep can make children much more vulnerable to anxiety.”
Instead of forcing a major bedtime shift once the school year hits, try implementing an incremental approach to building in more sleep time. Kids may hardly notice the difference but the results will be big.
5) Set shared & creative goals
Kids love having something to look forward to. If you’re a parent, you already know this! Want to be reminded of something endlessly? Just tell your kid about something exciting coming up.
As a parent or guardian, you can use that same kind of curious energy to help kids get excited about being out and about and back at school. For example, try using a device that counts steps and setting some kind of daily goal. You can even make it a family goal to bring everyone together each evening to compare steps.
Using little tools like this gives kids a fun objective and something else to focus on besides feeling anxious when they step out of the house.
6) Be curious to build connection
In “normal” times, school and home are two different worlds for kids. But for the past year, those worlds became one and the same. In many ways, that was a wonderful thing as it gave families more time together and more understanding. But as kids go back to school, it will be easy to let the separation re-appear.
There’s a simple but powerful tool any parent or guardian can use to help keep some of that connection: Questions! By showing interest and curiosity in kids' lives and their school world, adults can give value to kids' daily experiences that help build both confidence and connection.
Questions like these can go a long way to engaging kids, modeling empathy, and building healthy attachment:
- > What did your teacher talk about today?
- > Can you show me something you learned?
- > What was something that made you laugh today?
- > Was there anything today that made you feel sad or frustrated?
- > Can you tell me about your friends at school today?
One step at a time
Maybe more than anything, it's essential have grace for our kids (and ourselves too!) this fall. There's no such thing as a super parent and every kid is unique - and so is the relationship you have with them! As you commit to listening, engaging, and supporting your little ones this back to school season, you're bound to find your own practical ways to helping them thrive. Drop us a line on Facebook or Instagram and let us know what you learn along the way!