Is Back-to-School Anxiety Normal? Tips for Both Kids and Parents

August 30, 2022

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Barry D. Sarvet, MD Barry D. Sarvet, MD View Profile
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While most children returning to school are excited to be going back and seeing their friends and teachers once again, others like first-time kindergarteners or those transitioning to high school may feel nervous or even a little scared.

Anxiety on the first day of school isn’t a rarity, but it can often be prevented by just talking with your child, noted Dr. Barry Sarvet, chair, Department of Psychiatry, Baystate Health.

According to the child psychiatrist, while COVID-19 may have been a concern for some students returning to the classroom in the past, the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, could be on the minds of some students this year.

Ask a General Question

“Children need to feel safe in order to thrive. Rather than asking children if they feel safe at school, asking a general question about how they are feeling about going back to school could be a nice way of opening up a conversation about any worries or excitement about the transition,” said Dr. Sarvet.

“When children are worried, it is very helpful for parents to encourage them to express these feelings to lend emotional support, and to convey their own confidence in their safety,” he added.

After allowing the child to express any worries about safety, Dr. Sarvet noted parents can emphasize that everyone at the school from their teachers to the principal are committed to keeping them safe, that they have confidence that it is safe for them to go to school, and assure them that they wouldn’t be sending them to school if they thought otherwise.

Anxiety Over Starting Kindergarten

As for younger children who may be going to kindergarten or even pre-school for the first time, Dr. Sarvet noted they, too, need the opportunity to talk about their feelings and be reassured about the new experience they are about to embark on in their life.

“After letting the child talk about their feelings and expectations, parents can share their own thoughts, emphasizing the positive experiences they are hoping that the child will have in school. If the child is defiant, it will be necessary for parents to let the child know that they must go to school and that their parents will help them if they encounter problems. Parents can also express confidence in the child’s ability to do things that are hard and that they will be very proud of them when they get through the first day,” he said.

When it comes to managing separation anxiety on the first day of school, Dr. Sarvet says it may not be a problem just for the child, but also the parent who will need to manage their own anxiety over the separation.

Parents Have Anxiety, Too

“It may feel just as big a deal for parents who are sending their children off to school for the first time. They may feel as if they are surrendering their child into a system that is not entirely under their control. When children are sent to their first school, in a way, the parent is sharing their child with other caring adults for the first time, and this can be distressing to the parent,” said Dr. Sarvet.

“How parents cope with their own feelings of separation will have a strong influence on their children and if not managed well can amplify their child’s own anxiety,” he added.

And, when it comes time to drop your child off at school, don’t prolong the goodbye.

“If your child is crying or screaming and really putting on a fuss and clinging to you at the school door, hopefully the teacher will step in to help. The longer you linger, the more difficult it will be for them, and the vast majority will feel better shortly after the parent leaves,” said Dr. Sarvet.

Managing the First Day of School

Some children may also feel less anxious if they can bring something special from home, like a small stuffed animal or even a picture of their parents.

Additional tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)/Healthy Children to help your child manage the first day of school include:

  • Schools are open to address any concerns a parent or child might have, including the specific needs of a child, over the summer. The best time to get help might be one to two weeks before school opens.
  • Many children get nervous about new situations, including changing to a new school, classroom or teacher. This may happen at any age. If your child seems nervous, it can be helpful to rehearse heading into the new situation. Take them to visit the new school or classroom before the first day of school. Remind them that there are probably a lot of students who are uneasy about the first day of school. Teachers know that students are nervous and will make an extra effort to make sure everyone feels as comfortable as possible. If your child seems nervous, ask them what they are worried about and help them problem-solve ways to master the new situation.
  • Point out the positive aspects of starting school to help your kids look forward to the first day of class. Talk about how they will see old friends and meet new ones, for example.
  • Find another child in the neighborhood you child can walk to school or ride with on the bus.
  • If it is a new school for your child, attend any available orientations and take an opportunity to tour the school before the first day. Bring your child to school a few days prior to class to play on the playground and get comfortable in the new environment.
  • If you feel it is needed, drive your child (or walk with them) to school and pick them up on the first day. Get there early on the first day to cut down on unnecessary stress.

Should problems still exist with going to school, your child may simply need a little extra nurturing to support them at a time when they are stretching the boundaries of their independence. However, if the problem persists or worsens, Dr. Sarvet advises discussing the problem with your child’s pediatrician, who may suggest a mental health professional if needed.

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