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How to help your child with back-to-school anxiety

As summer winds down, parents have been getting their kids ready for the new school year by stocking up on binders, notepads, gadgets, and other school supplies. According to Deloitte’s back-to-school survey, back-to-school spending for the 2019/2020 school year is expected to reach $27 billion — about $519 per student in the United States.

With so much to do, buy, and organize, parents might overlook another crucial way of equipping kids for school — getting them mentally prepared.

Karen Stewart, MD, adult and child and adolescent psychiatrist for Kaiser Permanente in Georgia, says the new school year is exciting, but it’s also stressful, especially for those transitioning to new schools.

Dr. Stewart offers 5 tips for reducing back-to-school anxiety.

Be aware of school-related stress

It’s important to be aware of kids’ worries and know how to respond. Parents and caregivers play a critical role in helping children understand, manage, and overcome these worries. First, make sure your child knows it’s normal to be nervous.

Ask why your child is scared or nervous — it’s important to listen and show empathy. Younger children commonly worry about friends: Will they know anyone? Will they have anyone to play with or eat lunch with? To reduce anxiety, consider helping your child get to know classmates with a play date at the park or a group shopping trip for school supplies before school starts.

Also, be mindful of your own emotions: Parental stress can be picked up by your child so stay calm, watch that you don’t express your own nervousness, and show confidence.

Solve problems and plan

Children often seek reassurance that nothing bad will happen. Encourage your child to think of solutions for potential issues. When they are part of the solution, children feel empowered. Role-playing can also boost a child’s confidence.

Fear of school violence is also a cause for anxiety. Manage that worry with open conversations and a plan of action, such as how to reach each other if there’s an emergency on campus. Reassure your child that school violence is not a frequent occurrence.

Highlight the positive

Talking about past positive school experiences can brighten your child’s attitude. Discuss your child’s strengths and talents. Go shopping together for school supplies and let your child select some items to purchase. When children feel included, they are more likely to embrace changes, such as the start of the new school year.

Get into a routine

A regular routine can ease anxiety and make the transition smoother. Start with going to bed early and getting up at the time they will need to for school.

If it’s a new school, take a tour. Visit the classroom and point out the locations of key facilities, such as bathrooms, the cafeteria, and administrative offices. Let the teacher or school counselor know if your child is very anxious. Many schools have systems in place, such as assigned peer buddies, to help your child’s transition.

Have a first-week plan: Praise, reassure, and support resilience

Organize everything together the night before school begins to cut down on first-day jitters.

Younger children may feel comforted by bringing a special object to school that reminds them of home. For older children, a reassuring note in a lunchbox can help them feel better. This is also a time to teach mindfulness — being more aware of the present moment. Mindfulness can quiet a busy mind and ease anxiety.

After the first day or week, praise and reward your child for being resilient and brave during a significant transition. This is an opportunity to learn and practice resilience, making kids more adaptable to change and better equipped to handle adverse experiences. As a reward, you can offer treats, such as special pencils or school supplies, an outing, or a favorite meal.

If anxiety continues

Don’t ignore behavior that persists well into the school year. Behavior to watch for might include sudden poor sleeping or eating habits, refusal to go to school, or emotional outbursts.

By talking to your child’s teacher or school counselors, or discussing your concerns with your pediatrician, you can better judge if your child needs additional help and support.