4 Ways to Overcome Back-to-School Anxiety
You’re starting to see it everywhere …”Back to School!” I can’t believe that summer is almost over. The lazy, less structured days have flown by and my kids are beginning to ask all the questions: “Who is my teacher going to be?” “Will my friend be in my class?” “When are we getting school supplies?” If you are like me, you have different personalities in your home. One of your kiddos can’t wait to get back to the structure, the people and the stability that school offers. Most likely, though, you have another kiddo that doesn’t want to get up that early, hates the idea of getting reacquainted with new friends and teachers, and is totally overwhelmed with the thought of doing school work again.
Recently, Dr. Justin Smith talked about things to remember before your child heads back to school. He specifically mentioned you and your child’s anxiety as back to school approaches. It is true that pediatricians experience first-hand the anxiety that the transition back to school can create. Working in the emergency room as a child life specialist, offers a front row seat to the same pressures and stress. We often see a wave of kids struggling with anxiety and having a difficult time coping as they go back to school. As parents, we are often struggling too. Getting back in the swing of things and managing our kids’ emotions can feel overwhelming and often disheartening.
I want to challenge you, though, as parents and caregivers to enter into this time of transition with some tools in your back pocket ready to combat the stress and anxiety that back to school can bring. As a child life specialist, we are on the hospital side offering kids normalcy in the midst of a stressful situation. We are creating space for kids to learn to cope and develop tools that they can use throughout their lifetime – not just during hospitalization. As parents we need to create this same space in our homes. Here’s a few tips for creating space to cope during this transition. Remember that not every family and schedule can look the same. As you read, think of ideas that fit into these tips but also fit into your family’s culture.
- Celebrate!!! Instead of back to school being a bummer, make it a celebration. Have traditions around the first day of school. We always have cinnamon rolls on special days so the first day of school is no different in our family. I usually write my girls a special note to commemorate the day and have a Dollar Store goody sitting at their spot for breakfast. I have all girls, so we have a tradition of getting nails done before school starts. School supply shopping day usually includes a lunch or dinner out to eat at a favorite place. You could go to their favorite restaurant or make a special date for a fun activity. These are just a few ways we celebrate, but there are LOTS of ways to celebrate a new school year, the end of the school year and all the things inbetween!
- Create a routine. Often during the summer, our routine is gone or at best inconsistent. Going to school can provide the opportunity to revamp your routines and boundaries. In our home, there is no screen time before school, no matter how early you get up. There is an order to our mornings that include breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth, packing backpacks - all while music is playing in the background. My kids know what to expect each day when they wake up. We also have afternoon routines- a few minutes for a show when they get home, quiet/homework time before dinner and always set aside time for reading. While routines need to include the mundane things, it’s also good to include FUN in your routines. We have fun weekly routines and traditions. We get ice cream after school every Wednesday. We often have movie/pizza nights on Fridays or Saturdays. This year we will be adding a weekly job for our girls to accomplish also. Setting expectations and boundaries for kids sets them up for success. My kids know when to expect screen time, ice cream and family activities, and they can look forward to it without always asking for the next thing.
- Be nosy! What does that mean? Well, you are the parent. You get to know ALL the things simply because you are the parent. Just because your kiddo is away from you for 7 hours a day or more, you still get to know what is happening in those hours. Ask your kids about their day with open-ended questions - stay away from yes or no questions. Get to know the people at school…your kids’ teachers, principal, even cafeteria workers. Take time to honor them so that they can know and respect you. Get to know your child’s friends and ask who they are eating with, playing with, etc.? Know the other parents in your kids’ class so when the stories don’t quite line up, you can get some more details. Know your kids’ teacher. While you want to be respectful of their time, it is important to address things that come up for your kids during the year. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to know more. Send the email to clear up confusion. Make the phone call when you see a red flag. The more you know, the more you can engage your child. Plan to eat lunch with your child regularly. That might be once a month, but your presence in that space matters…mostly to your child. Volunteer in your child’s classroom or at the school or offer to do things from home. This allows you to know what to ask and to advocate when and where there is a need. You don’t have to be an infamous “helicopter parent,” but being present (and a little nosy) creates space for your kids to trust you and know that you are with them and for them no matter what.
- Focus on character. So often much of school feels centered around grades, testing, and measured successes. Often those are measured against other kids and expectations are high. While it is incredibly important for kids to master subjects and advance academically, their character will take them through all of life ~ all the challenges that they will face. And while math facts are super important, they won’t teach them how to be a good friend or show respect. I try to assess what character quality my kids need encouragement in and spend time fostering it. Whether it be self-control, patience, humility or the many others, we take time as a family to talk about these things. One thing I do for my kids is start a notebook at the beginning of the year that goes in their lunch box. I focus on character and encouragement in that notebook. I write a note or draw a picture each day that hopefully reminds and encourages them in that character trait. I also always let them know they are loved. I remind them at the beginning of each day, usually on the way to school, to choose others before themselves and treat others as they would like to be treated. We encourage trying over perfection, kindness over being right, and gratefulness when things aren’t going your way. The work will always be there, the vocabulary and math facts, but I don’t want my kids to get so lost in those facts that they forget about being human.
We want our kids to feel prepared and ready for this next year. Preparation alleviates some anxiety while creating space to teach them how to cope with the inevitable stress that comes with this transition. Celebrating, establishing routine, being present (aka a little nosy) and focusing on their character are all ways that you can help your children cope and combat the stress and anxiety of going back to school.
Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf
Ashley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.