By Janis Gioia, MAEd.
August is here, but there are still a good number of days left this summer.
Plenty of time left to hit the community pool, race down a rollercoaster, enjoy a lemonade and be blissfully busy doing nothing at all.
Many kids are still running through sprinklers, being sidewalk chalk Picassos, and catching fireflies as the long summer nights get a little bit shorter.
Most won’t give going back to school a second thought until the bus rolls around the corner.
But for some children, anxiety doesn’t take a summer vacation.
Anxiety never really left them with the last school bell in June.
It lingers all summer and pretty much steals their joy. For these children, those with anxiety and adjustment disorders, school phobia, and any number of special needs, the nervous hum of anxiety builds in intensity as the summer slips away and back to school promotions fill stores and television screens.
As a special education teacher, educational advocate and consultant, I have worked with numerous children who struggle with anxiety. When my children were young, they were not immune to bouts of back to school jitters.
There are plenty of things you can do now to help your anxious child relax and have a healthy adjustment to the new school year.
1. Let Children Know It’s Normal and Okay to Be Afraid
Everyone is afraid at one time or another, and kids need to hear that being afraid is normal and while it’s not fun, it’s okay.
When we tell children that there is nothing to be afraid of, that the fear is silly, or that it will just go away, we actually minimize their feelings and make them and their fear, worse.
According to Jennifer Blankenship, LISW, BCBA of North Star Family Guidance in Twinsburg, Ohio, “It helps to normalize a child’s feelings by letting him or her know that everybody feels anxious sometimes. Starting a new school year can make a lot of children feel anxious, and probably the teachers, too! Just be sure to discuss these feelings in a way that makes your child feel validated rather than dismissed.”
That sounds easy enough, right?
Learning how to relax is imperative for a child experiencing anxiety.
Relaxation, or diaphramic breathing, involves breathing deeply from your diaphragm.
Teach children how to breathe slowly as they place one hand on their stomach. Have them feel the deep breaths filling their stomach, like air expanding a balloon.
Then have them slowly let their breath out, like a balloon being slowly deflated.
Ideally children should practice this kind of breathing several times a day and especially before bed. It can be done in the classroom, at home, or even on the school bus.
Relaxation breathing has a cumulative effect and helps to lower anxiety and stress over time. Studies show that relaxation breathing can reduce stress-related illnesses like upset stomachs and headaches.
3. Visit the School and School Grounds Frequently
(This is different from the following suggestions of meeting the teacher and the school staff.)
Take your child to school throughout the remaining days of the summer.
Let your child walk around the school grounds, play on the playground, walk up to the front door.
Bring a ball and play kickball on the front lawn.
Pack a basket and have a picnic lunch under a shady tree.
In addition to de-sensitizing your child to “going to school” you are also providing pleasant associations with the building and school yard.
This idea might be met with some resistance at first, but once your child begins to enjoy some time at a place they have typically feared, the trip to school to eat pizza, hang out and play and enjoy a Popsicle, becomes much more appealing.
If your child struggles in social situations or has trouble making friends, bring a “friend” your child is comfortable with, or a child who will be in your child’s classroom next year. Never too early to start building friendships.
This strategy was very helpful when my one of my children experience severe separation anxiety at preschool. We visited his elementary school throughout the summer, playing ball, eating pizza at twilight on a picnic table, and letting him look in all the doors and windows.
When the first day of school came that August, and he ran out to the kindergarten bus, barely remembering to wave goodbye, I knew we were on our way to a good year.
That child is in college now, but he says he still remembers that summer, and how it helped him adjust to kindergarten.
4. Meet with Your Child’s Teacher and Other School Staff
In addition to recreational visits to the school, schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher, principal and school counselor before school begins.
Most teachers are back a few days before the official start day, and with advance notice, will be happy to meet with you and your child.
Meeting their teacher, seeing their classroom and their desk, and walking around the hallways often helps to put anxious little minds at ease.
Meeting the principal, counselor and other school personnel, like cafeteria workers and the school custodian, helps children feel secure.
If your school is fortunate enough to have a school counselor, schedule an appointment. Counselors can support children in small group or individual sessions.
5. Create a Soothing Space
If you are a parent, make sure your home has a soothing space where your child can go to relax. Furnish the area with soft pillows, music with noise cancelling headphones, soft modeling clay, stuffed animals, favorite books, weighted blankets and other favorite comfort objects.
You might need to help your child the first few times he uses the soothing space. Over time, your child will go to the soothing space on his own when he needs to relax, unwind or deal with difficult emotions.
If you are a teacher, consider creating a soothing space or relaxation area in your classroom.
Children come to school with a lot of baggage. Having a place where students can listen to relaxation music on headphones, cuddle a stuffed animal, touch a smooth pebble, drop a concern into a worry box, color or draw, read a book or use a fidget can relieve stress, calm fears, reduce anger and help meet children’s emotional needs.
A nice bonus: when children’s emotional needs are met they learn more and act out less.
6. Find a Friend
Every child needs a good friend, especially ones with social struggles or school anxiety.
While most children gravitate to a friendly face or make new friends quickly, those who struggle with social skills are often left on the sidelines, not sure how to navigate classroom routines like pencil sharpening, lunch and recess.
By planning ahead, teachers can give all children “First Day Friends” by pairing children for activities like lunch and recess. Pairing children can go on indefinitely throughout the school year for all children or for a child who needs companionship or joining in activities.
Parents can suggest that teachers pair their child with a “First Day Friend” or lunch or recess buddy when they meet before the start of the school year.
Jennifer says, ” Parents can request that teachers help an anxious or socially challenged child “Find a Friend.”
“Be sure to nurture friendships outside of school, too,” she continues. “Invite one or two children over for play dates so your child can develop friendships in a natural way. If it’s possible, find of few of the kids who will be in your child’s class and have some get togethers before school starts.”
Not just for athletes and entrepreneurs, visualization helps children create a positive mental image of school that helps in the transition process.
When children picture themselves in the school, in their classroom, relaxed, safe, making friends and having fun, they are less likely to suffer first day fears or school anxiety.
Help your child create a positive mental vision for his first days of school. Have her select the components for the visual story she will keep on her mental movie screen: feeling calm walking in the door, laughing with friends in the hallway, enjoying recess, feeling peaceful at her desk.
Try to involve as many senses as you can: the smell of the fresh grass as she gets off the bus, the sounds of the bubbling fish tank in the main lobby, the comforting feel of a weighted lap pad…whatever sounds, sounds smells and tastes your child finds relaxing…weave these into her visualization.
Practice the visualization with your child throughout the day.
Similar to visualization, an affirmation is positive self-talk that children can do to replace negative thinking with positive messages.
Affirmations work for any situation: school phobia, bullies, making friends, taking tests, peer pressure…whatever the stressor, an affirmation puts a positive spin on the child’s otherwise negative thought process.
Help your child write and practice positive statements to negate his worries.
For a child who worries about going to school a positive affirmation might be:
“I am safe and calm at school. I am relaxed when I am in my classroom. I can cope with any challenges that come my way.”
Positive affirmations also give children a sense of control over their world. The words they speak calm and guide them through their fears.
Coping strategies, like positive affirmations, are important. Children need to see that they can manage scary thoughts on their own, without always needing adult interventions.
9. Look Back
Anxious children often focus on the thing or things they are currently afraid of, forgetting triumphs over other fears at other times.
Make a list of fears your child has already overcome. When a child sees that he has successfully managed other fears like petting a dog, sleeping without a nightlight, etc., she gains confidence that her current fear will soon be on a list of “former” fears.
Remind your child that she is an “Overcomer.”
Sometimes children need how far they have come and the great things they have already accomplished.
10. Plan Ahead
Plan a special celebration to celebrate your child’s adjustment to the new school year. Whether your child would like dinner at a favorite restaurant, a movie night or a trip to the zoo, having something to look forward to makes the transition time easier to handle.
The child needs to focus on that day, in the very near future, when she is no longer fearful and enjoying school. You can say, “I know that you are going to be relaxed and happy at school. When you know that, too, we will celebrate with your special day and celebrate another way you were an “Overcomer.”
Classroom teachers can privately give the child an award or prize, too.
By looking back and planning ahead, children can see the progress they’ve made and look forward to future success.
If your child’s anxieties don’t subside after the first few weeks or get worse, get guidance from your child’s doctor or mental health professional.