School has been back in session now for a couple months. Maybe it already seems like ages ago that you snapped that cute photo of your child holding a sign announcing their new grade and teacher’s name. By this point in the year, many children are already fully immersed in standardized testing practice, project deadlines, extracurriculars, and other school activities that can be both exciting and stressful.
I find that this time of year, when the novelty of returning to school has worn off and a routine has set in, is often when I notice many children begin struggling with school anxiety. While it’s normal for most children to feel hesitant to get on the school bus occasionally, or to have a tough time waking up in the morning, some children’s worries about school become so overwhelming that it interferes with their attendance in class. If you’re wondering whether your child’s anxiety about school has reached a level where therapy might be helpful, here are a few questions to consider:
· How often is the anxiety happening? For example, is it just on Monday mornings following a weekend away, or is it becoming an everyday occurrence?
· Is your child complaining of physical symptoms, like headaches, stomach aches, or vomiting, that only seem to occur on school days?
· Is your child’s anxiety response getting stronger or weaker as the school year progresses?
· Have your child’s worries escalated to the point that tantrums or intense fearfulness are keeping him from being able to attend class?
If you found yourself answering “yes” to a couple of these questions, you are not alone! School is an extremely important, formative part of a child’s life, but the day-to-day experience of attending school can be stressful even for bright, resilient children. The increased focus on standardized testing and the added peer pressure of social media don’t make the experience any easier. Here are a few tips to help support your child who is struggling with school-related anxiety:
Teach Relaxation Skills
Simple techniques that use the breath or senses to soothe anxiety can be used almost anywhere, and are easy enough that even young children can master them. Teaching your child to take slow, deep belly breaths (called diaphragmatic breathing) can be helpful, as well as helping your child to practice tensing and relaxing the muscles of the body, starting at the head and moving down toward the feet (called progressive muscle relaxation). It’s best to practice these skills repeatedly while the child is feeling calm. That way, the next time she is feeling anxious or panicked, she knows just what to do.
Bibliotherapy—using a book as a way to introduce a topic and facilitate conversation about it—can make it easier to broach the subject of school anxiety with a child. Children may feel less nervous or threatened talking about their school worries when the conversation is focused on a fictional character, rather than themselves. A good story can add some much-needed humor to a scary situation, while also helping children feel less alone with their fears. School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and The Pigeon HAS to go to School by Mo Willems are two of my favorites for approaching the topic of school anxiety with children.
Keep Attendance Consistent
This is the hardest advice to follow, but it might be the most important! When a child is in extreme distress about attending school, it is very tempting to diffuse the situation by allowing them to stay home and relax. Taking an occasional mental health day is not likely to cause problems for most children, but for kids with severe school anxiety it almost always makes their anxiety worse over time. By avoiding the anxiety-provoking situation, we are alleviating a child’s fears for the moment, but also sending a message to the child’s anxiety that school is worth being afraid of. The next day, the child may find it is even more difficult to get to class. Helping children face their fears is the best way to combat anxiety.
For more information and support on how to help your child overcome their worries about school, please reach out to our team at Davidson Family Therapy to hear about how our counselors may be able to help!
-Katie Lear, LPC