After a summer away from the classroom, it’s not unusual for children to become anxious as the first day of school approaches. To help get the new school year off to a good start, Abigail Demchak, a licensed clinical social worker with Samaritan Health Services, offers some guidance.
“It’s really common to have school-based anxiety, especially when changing to a new school or starting a new grade. What differentiates typical first-day jitters from things that may be a bigger concern is the intensity and duration of the anxiety,” she said.
Often, kids with first-day jitters will settle into their school routine fairly quickly, within a few days or even a week or so. The anxiety should be addressed if it lasts longer than a few weeks, as well as if there are other behaviors such as avoidance (skipping school, isolation from peers), anger and depression.
“While there is no straightforward rule for how anxiety presents in different ages, there are some behaviors that can be more common in little kids versus older kids,” Demchak said.
Children in elementary school who are anxious about school may cry, throw tantrums, cling to their parents, not want to get ready for school, and tell teachers they aren’t feeling well, she said. Older children may refuse to get out of bed, stress about tests and grades, isolate themselves from their peers or ask to stay home from school.
Parents may be tempted to let a child stay home when they are anxious about school, but this isn’t the best course of action, Demchak said.
“The more we avoid the things that make us nervous or uncomfortable, the stronger those feelings get,” she said. “In order to learn to manage anxiety, we need to face the things that make us anxious. For kids with school-based anxiety, that means going to school and implementing good coping skills to learn to be more comfortable and resilient in that setting.”
Demchak offers the following guidance:
Listen & Be Supportive
When your child expresses emotions, don’t respond by saying “Just get over it” or “It’s no big deal.” This can be dismissive and add shame to already strong emotions. Instead, say things like “I see you are really nervous about school. Can you tell me what is making you feel so nervous?” This will help them learn to talk about difficult things and will give parents a glimpse into their child’s mind.
Advocate for Your Child
Schools often have resources that can help students who are struggling, but teachers and other staff may not even know your child is anxious — so speak up! Start with your child’s teacher to see if they have noticed your child’s anxiety and whether they can determine whether the anxiety comes from peers, classwork, public speaking or other stressors.
Explore All Resources
Schools have other helpful resources like counselors, advisors and other support staff who can give guidance and skills training. Don’t hesitate to ask the teacher or school principal about these options for you and your family.
Search out other options in your community. In Benton, Lincoln and Linn counties, families can go online to pollywogfamily.org or to parentingsuccessnetwork.org for helpful tools, resources and classes.
Most county health departments have mental health programs that offer individual and family counseling, and there are many private practices that offer the same in the community.
Your pediatrician’s office should have mental or behavioral health resources and can help you find someone to support your child.
Resources for the Neurodivergent
Neurodivergent children can receive support in a school setting through their individual education plan (IEPs) and 504 plan. These plans are individualized for each child with their specific needs in mind. School or community counselors and therapists can help to teach skills and tools that promote healthy and effective coping, increase day-to-day functioning, communication skills, etc.
“The most important part of supporting your child is starting the conversation, talking to the school, finding mental health support and being there for your child as they face their stressors,” Demchak said.
Abigail Demchak, LCSW, has clinical interests in anxiety, LGBTQ health and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and primarily sees children and adolescents at her office at Samaritan Lebanon Health Center. Call 541-451-6282 for an appointment.
In Lincoln City, Deborah Litberg, LCSW, sees children and adolescents at her office at Samaritan Lincoln City Medical Center. Call 541-994-9191 for an appointment.