School Worry and/or School Refusal - Tips and Strategies
It's typical for students to be nervous before the first day of school. Anxiety is the body's natural response to novel situations and allows us to be more aware, alert, and active. A moderate level of anxiety can, in fact, improve our performance in certain situations and is completely normal and expected.
However, if your student is exhibiting more extreme levels of anxiety, they may need help and support as they adjust to their new school or classroom. Symptoms of more serious anxiety could include:
- Student "obsessing" on worry - continuously asking questions, expressing concerns, or having difficulty sleeping or focusing due to the worry
- Headaches, stomach aches, difficulty sleeping, difficulty eating, or refusal to engage in social activities
- Extreme diligence regarding whereabouts of parent(s) - for example, following parent from room to room, refusing to be separated even for enjoyable activities, prolonged crying after separation (more than age appropriate)
If your child is experiencing any of the above symptoms, you may wish to speak with your healthcare practitioner for steps you can take to support your student. I am also available as a resource to support your student in the school environment. Please contact me so we discuss what form this would take.
There are steps you can take to support your student as well.
- Listen to your child. Acknowledge their feelings but let them know that they can handle it. Statements like, "I know this is scary for you, but I know you can do it," are the best way to respond. Telling a student they shouldn't be scared, or listing the things to look forward to can increase feelings of distress.
- Instead of listing positives for your student, ask them to make two lists. The first are the things they are worried could happen when they go to school. The second are things that could be fun or enjoyable about school. Look at the worries list and discuss which of these are things that are likely to happen and which are not. Discuss what would happen if one of these came true (for example, if your child is worried about you being late to pick them up, a yard supervisor would take them to the office and help them call you.) Look at the second list and talk about the likelihood of these things happening. This process is a type of cognitive restructuring that helps children to feel more in control and better able to handle anxiety.
- Practice coming to school during the days before school starts. Get up at the right time, get dressed, and have breakfast. Then drive to school and show your student where you'll be dropping off. Let them get a feel for the school campus and see the playgrounds. Decide on an exact spot where you will pick them up (try to pick somewhere that will be shady at the end of the day!) This will remove some of the unknown elements that can feel overwhelming on that first day.
- Connect with friends in the same grade. Encourage your child to make a plan to meet a friend on that first day or, better yet, come to school together so they have someone available to play with before the bell rings.
- Provide your child with a comfort object from home. Different objects work for different ages. Our youngest students benefit from small stuffed animals and older students like special stones or tokens to hold in their pocket. "Charge" the object with lots of parental love. Be sure the object is small enough to fit in their backpack so it doesn't become a distraction during learning times.
- Check in on your own anxiety. Our kids are very sensitive to our moods and decide what is safe from our cues. If you are anxious about your child's school experience, they will most likely be as well. Be sure that you are communicating to your child that they are ready, capable, and safe at school.
- Don't linger at drop off. Lingering and watching your child communicates that you are unsure of their safety. For the nervous child, this can make the separation much harder.
- Welcome your child with lots of hugs and appreciation for overcoming their "worry monster". Don't immediately ask lots of questions about their day, let them share in a natural way and allow them to lead the conversation. Excessive questioning can increase anxiety.
For more tips on supporting your student, be sure to check out my presentation on anxiety here
or click here
for some terrific resources on childhood anxiety from UCLA.
If your student has extreme anxiety, has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, or has a history of difficulty with school attendance. Please contact me before the school year begins so we work together to support your child's successful school participation.