Reducing Back-to-School Anxiety

Reducing Back-to-School Anxiety | Dr. Ali Ghahary

For some kids and teenagers, returning to school can also come along with a lot of stress and anxiety. In many cases, that back-to-school anxiety is often associated with things such as being away from parents or other family members (especially for younger children who are starting full-time school for the first time), or having to go to a brand new school (for example, transitioning from elementary school to high school, or moving to a new neighbourhood and having to go to a new school as a result.) There are also cases where children may be bullied in school in the past and might have fears about returning. In addition to these aforementioned reasons, COVID-19 is also adding to the stress and anxiety that children might be experiencing when it comes to their return to classrooms. Thus, it’s important that adults do as much as they can to ease the fear and anxiety that children may be facing and make their return to school a positive experience.

For children who are starting school for the first time, or those going to a new school, one of the most common concerns voiced by kids is their fear of having to make new friends, or not being able to see or spend as much time with friends from their previous school. Some children may also find it hard to interact with those they aren’t already familiar with due to their anxiety holding them back, while others may feel rejected by their peers, which are things that may also result in a decline in their social skills. To better understand what your child is struggling with and why they might be having difficulty making new friends at school, as them some of the following concrete questions – i.e., “Did you play or hang out with anyone new today?”, “What do you like about that person”, “How were the other kids treating you?” Also look for any signs that your child may be having trouble with social skills, such as body language (lack of smiling, eye contact, different facial expressions), voice quality (clarity, volume of speech), and any noticeable changes in their basic conversational skills. If you’ve recently moved to a new neighbourhood, get to know your neighbours and suggest your kids walk to school together with others their age, as this can be another good way for kids to start to build new friendships.

If a child is or has been bullied in school in the past, this can also cause them to want to retreat and avoid their peers or avoid going to school all together. While it can sometimes be difficult to determine if your child has been bullied at school due to them not wanting to talk about it, there are some telltale signs to watch for. For example, they may develop emotional changes (such as crying more, having low self-esteem, appearing moody/angry, or being depressed), may make up excuses as to why they don’t want to go to school, spends less time with friends, comes home from school with missing belongings, expresses physical symptoms such as stomach aches or nausea. If your child exhibits any of these signs, it’s important to start a dialogue with them and assure them that what’s happening to them isn’t their fault. Parents should also let school staff know what’s going on. It can also be beneficial to share yours and your child’s concerns with a doctor, counsellor, or psychologist.

When it comes to COVID-19, this is something that has increased fear, stress and anxiety in all of us – and for different reasons. Younger children in particular, however, may be much more confused by COVID-19. With physical distancing, for example, they may not have been able to see or communicate with their peers as much as they’re used to. Classrooms are also going to look much different than they did in years prior, with more focus on hygiene practices (such as regular hand washing) and learning groups – which is defined as a group of students and staff that primarily interact with each other and who remain together throughout the school’s quarter, semester or year, as opposed to moving from class to class. Things like school recess and lunches may also be staggered so that students aren’t all congregating together at once. In addition, children may also be required to wear face masks at certain times in school where it’s not possible to fully physically distance from others, which some kids may find uncomfortable or annoying to wear. However, explaining to kids why these health and safety measures need to be put in place, as well as explaining to them that the changes are only temporary, can help reduce the fears they may have surrounding the virus. For more information on B.C.’s Back to School Plan, visit backtoschool.gov.bc.ca.