Managing school-related anxiety

Dr. Paulo Pires, psychologist and clinical director of the Child and Youth Mental Health program, McMaster Children’s Hospital

Anxiety towards the 2021/2022 school year

This September is a little different than usual as we’re still in a pandemic and there is still uncertainty ahead. Some kids may be returning to in-person learning while others may continue with virtual learning. We know many parents and kids are going to worry about learning gaps due to the previous school year. Plus, a school transition, such as starting elementary school for the first time, starting high school, or going into grade 12 and preparing for post-secondary education, may add to what the young person is feeling going into this school year.

How can parents and caregivers help

There is a level of preparation that can be done to help ease a child’s anxiety.

  • Practice being around other people while following social distancing and masking rules
  • Discuss school routines
    • Will there be new routines?
  • Discuss expectations
  • Explore how the child is feeling and validate those feelings
  • Determine if there are any anticipated challenges

Check in after school has begun

As the weeks unfold after school starts, it’s important for parents and caregivers to check in with their child to see how they’re feeling about the school year so far. It isn’t likely going to be a typical school year, so you want to continue to give them confidence. Help them find things that are within their control and identify areas where they may need some help so you can practice with them at home. Also, reassure kids that if things aren’t going well, you as parents or caregivers, as well as the teachers at school are all going to problem solve with them to ensure things can go well.

Dr. Jennifer McTaggart, clinical psychologist, Child and Youth Mental Health clinic (2019 video)

What’s the difference between normal school jitters and anxiety that might need clinical attention?

It’s completely normal for children and adolescents to have some level of anxiety at the beginning of a new school year.

It’s a new year with new teachers, new expectations of them and possibly new friends. And having some anxiety is a good thing because it pushes us to do our best like study for a test or look both ways before crossing the road. But sometimes anxiety can become overwhelming and it can get in the way of what kids need to do to be kids.

It’s at these times that we might begin to think that anxiety requires clinical attention. That’s often with the school kids who are refusing to go to school or significantly struggling every day to go to school.

What are some common reasons for school anxiety?

Anxiety is our body’s natural response when it thinks that it’s in danger. That can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it has to do with separating from parents but it can also have to do with making new friends or writing a test or answering a question in class. It really can be different for each child.

When we think of anxiety, we often talk about the fight, flight or freeze response. The fight, flight or freeze system is the body’s survival mechanism for when it thinks it’s in danger.

What does anxiety look like in kids?

Some kids are really anxious about going to school and they might try to get out of school or say that their stomach hurts, and for those kids that’s often the flight. They want to avoid school at all costs because they think it’s scary.

Other kids might act out or misbehave when they’re anxious and these are the fight kids. They feel in their body that they’re really in danger and so they need to protect themselves.

Other kids might have the freeze response so they might be the kids who freeze up or stare blankly when a teacher asks a question. They might seem a little bit more distracted or spacey. So it really can look different in all kids.

How can parents help young kids and teens cope with school anxiety?

I think it’s important to first acknowledge that for young children separating from their caregivers, it’s really anxiety provoking. It’s difficult to do. They’re their primary caretaker. It’s important to start talking about school early and often, so you can come up with that plan ahead of time.

Anxiety in teens can look a little bit different as kids get older they because less anxious about separating from their parents and more anxious about social situations.

That often takes one of two forms. They’re either worried about performance, so they’re worried about tests or presenting in front of the classroom, or they’re worried about being judged or embarrassed.

I think there are some useful strategies for all ages and and it’s best to start with the basics — which is making sure that your kids are eating and sleeping well.

And sometimes they’ve been on a different schedule for the summer so it’s good before school starts to get back into a bedtime routine and a morning routine that will mimic what they’re going to do when they’re back at school.

It’s also important for parents to talk to their children about how they’re feeling about going back to school. For instance, if they’re worried about making new friends, parents can role play with their children about how to make a new friend. This gives them a script and a language to be able to use when they’re in that situation.

What should you do if your child doesn’t want to go to school?

Parents sometimes don’t have a lot of patience when their kids are complaining every day, “I don’t want to go to school.”

Sometimes we say things like, “Well you have to.” Although best-intentioned, often that can make kids kind of dig in their heels. It’s best to stay away from phrases like that and instead try to see the situation from your child or your teen’s perspective.

So what might they be anxious about, what might they be worried about? Why do they not want to go to school?

Sometimes in teens it’s a little bit different. You want to be careful to not tell a teen, “I get how you’re feeling,” because in the teenage brain, no one possibly understands what they’re going through.

In those situations you want to be careful not to use the words “I get it” or ‘when I was a teenager…’ None of those things really resonate.

It’s better to say things like “No wonder,” or “of course you’re feeling scared” or “of course you’re anxious about going because, because, because…”

How should parents handle their own anxiety about kids going back to school?

Kids look to their parents to gauge their emotional reactions in a potentially scary situation. They pick up on your cues.

Try to remain calm as best as possible. Take a deep breath and then do what you really know is best for your child, which is to love them, to understand how hard this might be for them, to help them plan ahead and help them problem-solve if a situation comes up that they’re finding stressful.

Should you ever hold your child back from school if they are suffering from anxiety?

No parent wants to see that their child is struggling. So we think, “I’ll just let them stay home today” or “I’ll keep them home, they can’t handle it.” It really does send that message that they can’t handle it or there is something to be worried about.

Feeding into the avoidance and letting kids get out of going to school really does make things worse in the long-term. It makes the anxiety worse and it makes it harder to go back.