How To Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

Reading Time: 3 minutesIt’s back to school time in Hong Kong!

Parents and children alike will be preparing for the academic year ahead with a mixture of emotions. Whether they are returning to school or starting school for the first time, some children (and many parents) may be starting to feel a bit of  ‘first day of school’ anxiety set in as the start of the new school year approaches.

After the last couple years here in Hong Kong, it’s no wonder some of us might be a little more than apprehensive. Thankfully, schools will resume as normal as possible even though they will be operating under some of the pandemic restrictions we’ve all been living through. This may not be comforting enough for some and it could be important to seek ways to manage back-to-school anxiety.

There are many ways for parents to support the settling in process. Since children thrive on certainty, it’s helpful to have regular routines, early and consistent bedtimes, and enough time for relaxation and play each day. Along with healthy meals, these small rituals and regularity can help a child feel more secure. 

child feeling anxious with her mum going back to school

Ways to Manage and Reduce Back-to-School Anxiety

Set a Routine

Since young children don’t have a great sense of time, the new routine of school can be tricky for them to adjust to and may give them anxiety. To help young children manage this, ensure their schedule is very clear. One way to do this is to create a calendar or daily timeline you can draw up together. Add information like who will meet them off the bus, what their afternoon snack will be and so on. This can give children a sense of certainty.

Picture books can be another great way to talk about the new routine, to empathise with others in the same situation, and to do a ‘dry run’ of first time experiences. Additionally, playing together can give you a better idea of how your child is feeling and might initiate useful conversations. 

Manage Your Own Emotions

We as parents must first manage our own level of anxiety before being in a position to help our children. Our job is not to remove every problem from our children’s lives so that it is completely anxiety free, but to help our children develop the skills to manage their own anxiety. Children look to us and may mirror the level of emotion they think they should be having.

What about children refusing to go to school?

When it’s time for school, parents have to ensure the boundary is clear: school is non-negotiable. Avoidance exacerbates anxiety. At the same time, saying, “you shouldn’t feel nervous,” or “there’s no need to feel afraid,” can belittle how they are feeling. If your child shares a feeling, try not to close it down but discuss it openly. Rather than using direct questions, try instead, “I remember when I was in P2 I felt …,” “I was wondering whether…,” “I noticed that…” Stay receptive, curious and open to what your child is saying. If school refusal becomes an issue, seek help from your child’s school or a counsellor.  

boy feeling anxious in school

Physical Manifestations of School Anxiety

At the beginning of a new school year, parents may expect some regression in children such as trouble sleeping, dressing themselves and going to the toilet. These skills may be tested in the first few weeks. Most kids will get comfortable and bounce back to where they started, however, if these changes persist more than a few weeks, or if your child is very clingy or tearful, talk to the teacher to see how they are at school. Sometimes children’s worries may manifest themselves physically such as having tummy aches or headaches. Look out for the signs, listen, and do your best to tolerate them without jumping in to solve issues right away.  

Transition offers growth opportunities

All periods of transition, at any age and whatever form they take, can render us fragile so it’s important that we look after ourselves and each other at these important times. These are also the times that offer us the most potential for growth. There’s no question that last academic year was a challenge; we can dare to dream that the experience of the past will develop this generation of children into resilient and compassionate people with a real understanding of the importance of human connection. 

Book Recommendations to Help With Separation Anxiety

Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

Flora Scott is a school counsellor and can be seen by appointment at Central & Stanley Wellness Centre (www.stanleywellnesscentre.com).

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