Back-to-School Butterflies? Helping Your Child Calm the Jitters

Colin was starting 6th grade in a new school. At an orientation event, he became clearly unnerved as he struggled with the combination on a sticky locker. His concern, says mom, Lynn, was “whether he’d be able to open his locker during school when they only had four minutes between classes.”

Colin’s particular fear is surprisingly common, and so is his apprehension about the beginning of a new school year. Most kids, even excited ones, experience a few butterflies in the first weeks. And the source of such uneasiness isn’t always obvious to parents.

What Kids Worry About

Age, experience and temperament all determine a child’s concerns. Young children with little experience outside the home may exhibit separation anxiety. “Being in the care of adults other than their parents can be initially stressful for some children,” notes Deb Cockerton, a child and youth behavioral counsellor. These youngsters also worry about practical matters, such as finding the bathroom and getting on the right bus.

When they’re a bit older, children worry about whether they’ll have friends in their class and where they’ll sit at lunch. Older tween-age students are “concerned about how they will fit in with their peers, and how they will do academically,” says Cockerton. The start of puberty and issues like cyberbullying, body image and athletic ability may be additional stressors.

Some worries are not obvious to parents. Kerry Norris, principal and longtime educator, says, “There are always some things we don’t think of as adults…We’ve had little ones who are afraid to flush the toilet in the loud echo-prone bathrooms.” Older kids who are beginning to measure themselves against peers, may feel humiliated if they wear the “wrong” clothes or come to school with a “nerdy” haircut.

Major transitions can cause feelings of insecurity, even if a child has previously done well. Lynn says that Colin was “extremely successful and a model student” during his elementary years. Yet, as a kid who “thrives on routine and predictability,” it took time for Colin to adjust to the new academic expectations, the more complicated schedule and the pre-teen social dynamics of his new school.

Signs of Anxiety

Kids express anxiety in many ways. Some are vocal and quite specific about their concerns. The tummy ache is a common symptom of stress in younger kids. But more often it is a child’s behavior that indicates distress. Cockerton says, “The younger child can become more ‘clingy,’ not wanting to leave mom’s side.”

Older children can also suffer physical symptoms, such as headaches. They may eat more or less than usual when they’re feeling anxious, and Norris notes they may also experience sleep interruptions and moodiness.

How Parents Can Help

  • Kids feel more confident and competent when they come to school prepared. Experts like Cockerton and Norris agree that parents play a leading role in helping kids cope with back-to-school fears. Here are some ways to calm the jitters:
  • Talk to your child about what worries her. Provide accurate information if she is misinformed.
  • Listen carefully and respond empathetically. Avoid saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine!” Focus on your child’s very real concerns.
  • Create safe space. The tween who resists face-to-face conversation may “open up” at unexpected moments. Look for natural opportunities to listen and check in during daily activities—riding in the car, doing a chore, playing a game.
  • Read books. Cockerton says books can give kids “language to express what they are feeling.” School-challenged characters can also normalize a child’s feelings.
  • List it. Help kids refocus on the positive by listing the things they’re excited about as well as the things that scare them.
  • Talk to veteran students. If your child is starting at a new school, make contact with kids that have been there a year or two. Fears of the unknown can be calmed with accurate kid-to-kid info.
  • Meet and greet. Make introductions to teachers and other school personnel.
  • Brainstorm. Help your child build a repertoire of possible solutions to a problem. Colin, was anxious at the thought of changing into his gym clothes amongst other boys. She says, “We helped him figure out where he could change and feel he had some privacy.”
  • Play “what if…” What would you do if you forgot your lunch? What would you do if couldn’t find your homework? This technique gets even the youngest kids involved in problem-solving. As Principal Norris says, “Developing the skills to solve problems independently lasts a lifetime!”
  • Role play. Act out potentially uncomfortable interactions: What can you say if you want to be friends with someone? What can you do if someone is mean to you?
  • Resist overscheduling. Keep extracurricular activities manageable, especially during the first months of school. Kids need down time to unwind and reflect.
  • Show confidence. Let your child know you trust her ability to succeed. Remind her of the many challenges she’s faced and managed in the past.
  • Check parental fears. As Cockerton says, “Children are very good at reading their parents’ emotions, and if the parent is worried about how their child will do at school, the child will interpret that as ‘something to be worried about.’”
  • Make home comfortable. Kids who are worried about a parent’s physical or mental health may be reluctant to leave home. When major life events (divorce, death, a family move) occur, maintain as consistent a routine as possible.
  • Get help. If your child’s difficulties persist, “Networking with the school personnel is a critical piece of the puzzle. Open communication with school teachers, counselors and others is paramount to ensuring the most successful year possible.”

Soothe the Stress with Belly Breaths!

An anxious child tends to take quick, shallow breaths. A good self-calming technique is the “belly breath.”

Here’s how to do it:

Sit comfortably.

Place one hand lightly on your belly.

Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four.

Feel your belly rise.

Hold the breath for a count of two.

Let your breath out slowly through your mouth as you count to four.

Repeat several times.

Helpful Books

For Little Ones:

First Grade Jitters by Robert Quackenbush

I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child

Kindergarten Rocks by Katie Davis

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

For Older Kids:

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look (ages 6-9)

Back to School, Mallory by Laurie B. Friedman (ages 7-10)

Smile by Raina Telgemeier (ages 8-12)

Ashley Talmadge is a freelance writer and mother of two elementary-age boys. She has found that each school year brings its own set of fascinations and challenges.


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