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Teaching Strategies | May 23, 2024

Dos and Don'ts for Helping Kids Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

The first day of school can be a source of anxiety at any grade level. As caring adults in a child’s life, we can make a difference by showing kids that we understand their feelings and that, despite a case of the jitters, we believe they can succeed. Here are a list of dos and don’ts for helping kids manage their anxiety about returning to school this fall.


Do Start Talking About Excitement

Anxiety and excitement can feel similar. Heart rates go up, breathing gets faster, and it may be hard to sit still or concentrate. When a person feels this way before a big event or change, using calming strategies might help. It may be just as helpful to embrace the symptoms you’re feeling, though, and flip the script. Saying, “wow, I’m so excited about seeing friends that my hands are sweaty!” can help a child change the way they think about their symptoms and make it easier to focus on the positive parts of returning to school. Parents can model this with their own returns to activities or work, or they can voice their “symptoms of excitement” about back-to-school anxiety.

Do Make a Calming Kit

Some kids find it useful to have a set of physical tools that can help them lower their general or back-to-school anxiety. These tools usually engage the senses, helping the child “zoom out” from their worries and instead to focus on other things in their environment. Mints to suck on (taste), lavender to smell (scent), a photo of a beloved pet (sight), or a cool, smooth stone (touch) are all options to include in a “calming kit.” Even if the larger kit needs to stay at home, it might be possible for a child to take a small item—such as a piece of satin fabric—to school. Ideally, encourage kids to practice feeling the fabric days or weeks ahead of school, when they are feeling relaxed and comfortable. Ask them to talk about how it feels in their hand—this helps get an anxious person out of their own head. In time, use this focus on the fabric when the child becomes a bit anxious about something. Hopefully, by the time school starts, having that piece of satin in a pocket will provide a bit of security and confidence in your child that they can soothe themself whenever they need to.

Do Talk About How Other Kids Are Feeling

Because anxiety happens in our minds, and the symptoms are usually felt in our bodies, it’s often very difficult to see anxiety happening to someone else. Thus, kids may arrive for the first day of school and think everyone else feels just fine—that they are the only one with back-to-school anxiety. This is definitely not true. Talk ahead of time about how everyone experiences anxiety, even if we can’t see it happening. Hypothesize about what a friend (or a teacher!) might be worried about this year. Ask your child what strategies they might advise this friend to use to manage anxiety. Might that same strategy work for your child?

Do Set Kids Up to Speak Up

The more power a child feels to get their needs met, the less nerve-wracking returning to school will be. Self-advocacy could mean acknowledging that coming back to school can be difficult. Individuals who are willing to express what they are feeling often discover they have more in common with their peers than they realized.

Do Plan Downtime

Anxiety is exhausting. So is change. Returning to school can be a huge change for many students. Relaxing activities can help kids recharge between school days. Plan some simple comforts for those first weeks of school: put a few coloring books on standby, let your child pick what to have for dinner on day one, or keep the first weekend free of organized activities. On the first morning of school, you can remind your child that they have spaghetti and a movie to look forward to.



Don’t Say “There’s Nothing to Worry About”

It’s tempting to say this to a child, either because you do know they will be safe or because you just don’t want them to have to worry! Regardless, your kid is feeling nervous. New teachers, new friends, and new school procedures and rules may be very different than they remember.

We tend to say this to kids when we want to reassure them that they’ll be okay. Remind them of the adults at school who they can ask for help. Rather than brushing aside their feelings of worry, say what you mean: “My job as the adult is to make sure you are safe, and I’m confident you are safe here.”

Don’t Say “I Told You It Would Be Easy!”

We tend to say this to kids after they’ve mustered the courage to do something difficult for them (even if it seems simple enough to us). However, managing back-to-school anxiety is not easy. Instead, acknowledge their efforts and celebrate the win: “I know that was hard, but you did it! I’m so proud of you.”

As teachers and caregivers, we can support children as they head back to the classroom and help them manage normal back-to-school anxiety. These strategies will smooth the transition and can be applied to other stressful situations in a child’s life when jitters and anxiety appear.




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Summer Batte

Summer Batte has worked as a writer and editor for more than 16 years. For the past four years, much of her work has been focused on research-based advice stories. She came to appreciate her undergraduate studies in psychology at Stanford University more than ever when she experienced peripartum depression and anxiety, and a few years later, learned she was parenting a child with anxiety. For nearly 10 years, she has researched anxiety and learning disorders to ensure her daughter got the...

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