Spending the day away from home, meeting new people and the prospect of learning are the hallmarks of beginning any new school year. Oftentimes, however, instead of fostering excitement and anticipation, these events produce anxiety and apprehension for kids.
Whether entering kindergarten, attending elementary school or beginning middle school, potential stresses abound when a new academic year is just around the corner.
"A lot of anxiety is related to the unknowns and there are many unknowns when you’re going to school. If children get there and there’s a real significant surprise they didn’t expect, that can turn the first day really sour," says Ellis Copeland, professor and chair of the school of psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Not only does preparing ahead of time quell potential anxieties, it cultivates excitement about a child’s role in life.
"It’s critical to make a big issue of that day in terms of a positive force because ... children’s universes are centered around them. Parents (can) show that school is an integral part of the universe and not only does the child have an identity but they have an identity within the school," Copeland explains.
For children entering kindergarten, leaving the safety net of home or day care to interact with a group of strangers in a structured environment can translate into a scary scenario.
"It is fairly normal for kids to experience separation anxiety from their parents from the first day to maybe even several weeks," says Dr. Sucheta Connolly, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the pediatric stress and anxiety disorders clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "What parents can do, especially for kindergartners entering this new experience, is prepare kids ahead of time by visiting the school, meeting the principal, finding out who the teacher will be and taking advantage of programs that give kids the opportunity to meet other children."
Sometimes, allowing children to store a favorite item from home in their backpacks will instill a sense of familiarity throughout the school day, says Connolly. Further, reminding children that school lets out at a specific time and talking about a fun after-school activity will reinforce the sense that they will not be there forever.
First- and second-graders can harbor anxiety about attending a building with older students.
Connolly suggests role playing or a simple discussion about a child’s expectations and fears as a way to air and perhaps banish their apprehensions. Additionally, older siblings or neighbor children can share stories about going to a larger school with older kids.
Perhaps more important than what is discussed about going to school is how parents handle the transition.
"It can be tough for parents, especially the first year, to leave their kids, but if the parents are making too big of an issue of it, if mom or dad starts crying, that will upset them," Copeland says. "School is there to help with parents’ separation and parents should be talking about celebrating the day."
Third through fifth grade
While going to school might be old hat for kids in the later elementary years, new worries can arise each fall. For third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, concerns about academics and developing and sustaining friendships replace those about leaving home and meeting strangers.
To ease stress about transitioning from carefree summers to studious autumns, Copeland suggests parents preemptively stimulate their children’s intellect.
"Middle schools often have summer reading lists and it’s a good idea to get the kids into the library or buy the books so that they’re engaged back into an academic environment," he says.
Because a higher priority is put on academics, children who struggle with organization, planning and multi-tasking may develop anxieties about projects, Connolly says.
"Test taking or just feeling anxious in certain situations are opportunities for kids to learn relaxation skills," Connolly says. "Parents want to make sure children get enough sleep before taking a test, study over time and not cram at the last minute and develop project planning where the work is divided into parts. It’s also important to help a child accept that they might not be as good in some areas as others—to still guide them and pass the class—but help them understand it might not be their strongest area."
If improving study habits does not solve academic problems, Copeland suggests parents talk to school counselors or psychologists about possible stressors and interventions.
As a child’s role in a school’s social setting expands, the pressure to make friends can be challenging.
"Some kids are still looking toward parents to give guidance and help with understanding the rights and wrongs and things you need to be doing as they make friends," Connolly says. "They’re also taking steps to become independent of parents by developing close friends. If a child is having difficulties making friends or doing after-school activities, parents should encourage those sorts of things or ask other parents with children to meet up.
Connolly explains that since children at this stage are exhibiting certain abilities, such as artistic, musical and athletic, enrolling them in extracurricular activities will help them meet kids with similar talents while developing their self-esteem.
Sixth- through eighth-grade
As anyone who’s gone through middle school can tell you, having positive self-esteem is vitally important to minimizing the social stress intrinsic to the intermediate, middle school years.
"This is a time where you really want them to be developing a sense of self-esteem that’s separate from pleasing mom or dad—you want them to develop a sense that they’re really good at this or that, this is a strength," Copeland says.
Moreover, allowing children to determine what they excel at facilitates development of their identities.
"Fitting in, for girls especially, is a major issue in middle school and very difficult because how they look, dress and act becomes part of their identity," Copeland says. "The idea is to help the child develop their identity by asking the child which kind of statement they want to make and talking about who they are more than trying to fit in. They have to fit in to some extent, but part of our responsibility as a parent is to ask them what they want to look like and if they feel good about themselves going outside."
Adding to the difficulty of developing an identity are the emotional flounderings brought on by puberty. While most parents view their 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds as too young to engage in risky behaviors, such as sex and alcohol and drug use, peer pressure to partake in such activities will likely confront them in middle school.
"I would say you could have those conversations as early as third through fifth grades because by the sixth through eighth grades it’s something you want your children to have some practice in and confidence that they would know how to handle themselves," Connolly says. "What you’d like to see over time is that your child recognizes when there’s something wrong and instead of believing there’s nothing they can do about it, call the parent."
More than any guidance parents can provide, simply staying involved in their children’s lives will help them deal with stressful peer situations.
"Being available to talk with your kids about different situations helps them deal with situations they’ve never dealt with before," Connolly says.
Robin Huiras is a freelance writer living in Evergreen Park.