Butterflies at the start of the new school year are normal, but after the year we’ve had, Dr Kathy Weston offers some advice for back to school anxiety.
By Dr Kathy Weston
It can be normal for parents, even in ‘normal’ times to worry about the new school year. Whether your child is heading off to nursery, primary or transitions to senior or secondary school, parents will worry. Often those worries centre on the administrative burden that comes with a school start and on the ‘unknowns’ that come with a child joining a new class or school setting. What follows outlines some ideas on how to handle back to school anxiety.
What is striking is that children very often possess a different set of worries to their parents. Parental worry typically centres around children or young people’s ability to socialise, connect with others, make friends and the extent to which their child’s physical and mental health needs might be met over the next academic year. Children tend to be very practical when it comes to worrying. How will I get to school? What will the bus be like? Will I get lost? Who will pick me up? Who will be at home when I get back? It is not uncommon for children to be concerned about how they might navigate around the school building, where they sit for their lunch and how they will remember all the things they have to remember.
Coupled with these ‘normal worries’ that manifest in ‘normal times’, some children may experience anticipatory anxiety related to COVID-19. Is the classroom different? Can I play with my friends? Will I be able to play the same games? Some, but not all children, will worry on a larger scale about virus transmission and carry some anxiety left over from the experience of lockdown.
The good news is that parents play a powerful role when it comes to both alleviating anxiety in children and modelling a positive and resilient approach that can help children get school-ready. As a family, it is a useful exercise to reflect back on the experience of lockdown and to extract positives associated with the experience. Where were the silver linings? What did we learn about ourselves and others? Celebrate your resilience as a family over that period, so that your child begins to see themselves as already resilient. This kind of reflection breeds resilience.
A second part of being school-ready is about airing all and any worries in a nice open chat with your child. Together, seek out solutions, ideas and thoughts that can alleviate or cancel a particular worry. Perhaps your child is worried about walking alone to school. What can we do about that? Coach them rather than provide solutions yourself. Model a proactive and positive approach and importantly, convey a sense of excitement and joy that your child is moving up a year in school, growing and developing. What are they excited about and looking forward to?
Controlling Covid anxiety
In terms of the dreaded virus, try and focus your child’s attention on life’s ‘controllables’; what your child can do or influence in relation to it. Underline the practical steps that they can take to stay healthy, emphasise the proactive work schools are doing in anticipation of school return and celebrate the innovation that is taking place across the scientific world, that will enable us, at some point to return to life, unmasked.
In the current climate, it can easy to forget the central role of school; as places of learning. It is important that parents continue to reiterate to their offspring, that we go to school to work hard and to learn and that is it important to try our best. Let’s stay aspirational, whilst making sure they stay calm, focused and positive.
Dr Kathy Weston is an academic, motivational speaker, wife and mother of two boys. She delivers talks to parents and teachers and also offers 1:1 coaching.