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Studying Up on Back-to-School Stress

Hear from an expert about school stressors for kids — and how to ease the transition from summertime to class time.

Packing lunches, stocking up on binder paper, and setting the alarm clock are the easy tasks associated with a new school year.

The harder stuff might seem out of your control — such as your child’s anxiety.

Hillary Van Horn-Gatlin, PhD, of Behavioral Medicine at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento, offers insights.

Hillary Van Horn-Gatlin, PhD

What causes back-to-school stress?

Most children have concerns about a new school year, although often the most stressed children are those transitioning to new schools or grades with increased academic demands. Children of all ages typically worry if people will like them or be nice to them.

Other common concerns I hear are: Who will be my new teacher? Will any of my friends be in my class? Who will I sit with at lunch? What if I miss the bus?  What if I can’t understand the new schoolwork or keep up with everyone? What if something bad happens while I am at school?

It’s very important for parents and caregivers to be aware of both the worry and how to respond. Your role is to help your child understand, manage, and overcome these feelings. Make sure you child knows it’s normal to be nervous.

What are tips for preparing before school starts — or right as it is starting?

You can help out by getting your child into a regular routine — early to bed and then up and ready in the morning, and eating regular meals and snacks.

Especially for young children, it can help to tour the school, visit their classroom, and show them where the bathrooms, administrative offices, and cafeteria are located. If possible, schedule a visit with your child’s teacher. Let the teacher or school counselor know if your child is very anxious. Many schools have systems in place, such as assigned peer buddies.

Get your child excited by talking about past positive school experiences. Then go shopping together for school supplies.

Find out why your child is scared. A common concern in younger children is the uncertainty as to who they will play with. If possible, help your child get reacquainted with classmates.

Problem-solve and plan. Children often seek reassurance that bad things won’t happen. Don’t say, “You’re fine! Don’t worry!” Instead, encourage your child to think of solutions for potential issues. Role-playing can boost a child’s confidence.

Tips for the first day?

Together, spend the evening before school organizing everything. For younger children who are nervous about separating, suggest taking a special object to school that reminds them of home. For an older child, a reassuring note in a lunchbox can help.

When school starts, praise and reward your child for hard work. Set up a “First Week of Treats” to celebrate the first week of school and the many brave behaviors he or she has shown during an important and challenging transition. Treats might include a favorite fruit, some stickers, or special erasers or other supplies.

Also, it is important to be aware of your own emotions: Parental stress can turn into anxiety and be picked up by your child. Stay calm, watch what you say, and show confidence in front of your child.

What if the anxiety continues?

Don’t ignore behavior that lasts well past the start of the school year or is abnormal for your child. This might include disruptions in sleeping or eating, refusal to go to school, emotional outbursts or temper tantrums, or seeking out an undue amount of feedback from others.

By talking to his or her teacher or school counselors, or discussing your concerns with your pediatrician, you can better judge if your child needs more help.