As the school year begins you can almost hear the hearts of school-aged kids starting to beat a little faster. Whether starting a new school or just moving to a different classroom, going back to school is likely to cause a range of nervousness, anxiety, and even terror in children. This can be especially true for boys who thrive on predictability and routine.
Of course, we know that getting our kids back into a school sleep-and-wake-up schedule is important to get their minds and bodies ready to go back to school, but what about their emotions?
The brain is a powerful organ that not only helps us learn but controls our emotions. The amygdala is the area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, and when overstimulated or put into “fight or flight” mode, it takes over our ability to think clearly. If our boys are feeling stressed or anxious, likely their brains aren’t going to be open to learning. So, what can we as parents and teachers do to help ease their anxiety, and ready their brain for learning?
Affirm their feelings
We are much more aware of not saying to our boys, “Don’t cry” but we aren’t yet as practiced in not telling them, “Don’t be scared.” Telling your son not to be scared doesn’t stop him from feeling scared, rather it signals to him that he shouldn’t feel that way. It’s ok for him to be scared. This can be a good time to tell kids that feeling scared is their body’s way of being on alert and that it is important to listen to and acknowledge that feeling.
What exactly is he feeling nervous about? You may get the answer, “Everything!” from your son but work to break that down for him. Is he nervous about the bus ride or getting to school? Nervous about the teacher or the class? Nervous about classmates? Nervous because he didn’t finish summer reading? Naming specifically what is scary is a way to catalog the situation and help him wrap his head around all aspects of it. Remember to point out the things he didn’t name and the moments of potential confidence in that first day. He may be worried about lunch but remind him that he knows where the cafeteria is and he may have had previous successful experiences eating in either this cafeteria or another one that can help him feel more confident about doing that again. He may not know anyone at his new school, but he has had previous experience meeting new people and making new friends. Remind him of those experiences and help him think through how he might apply them to this new setting.
Come up with a plan
We are most anxious about things in our life that are unknown or out of our control. So, it is important to familiarize children with this new situation and for them to be in control of things that are within their power to control. If he is worried about getting to school – do a dry run of how that might go on the first day. You can even pretend that you are a bus driver and recreate that experience for him right down to getting picked up on the curb, sitting quietly in a seat, deciding where to put his backpack, and driving a route through various neighborhoods. Take advantage of the back-to-school events and get him into his new school or new classroom as soon as possible. Schools are staffed all summer long and most teachers and administrators are happy to walk through the building with new students who are nervous about the first day.
Outside of just familiarizing your son with a new routine of school, help to familiarize him with the emotions that he may feel in a new situation. Ask him to articulate how his body feels and how his emotions come out when he is scared. Does he hide, or cry, or stop talking? Ask him about the last time that he felt that way and how he was able to feel comfortable again. Give him strategies for how to respond to those feelings. He could fold his hands and take deep breaths, or get a drink, or talk to his teacher, or another adult about how he is feeling. Importantly, remind him that he did eventually feel comfortable again and that he will in this new situation too.
Remember the past
Going back to school can be hard, but each child must be reminded that he has done difficult things in the past and gotten through them. Going to preschool, staying at a friend or grandparent’s house overnight, going to lessons or classes on their own are all ways that kids demonstrate independence. Even if there were tears and anxiety last time, it doesn’t diminish the fact that he was afraid, and he got through what made him scared. Think of as many and as varied ways as possible that your child has been independent and remind him of his success. Even if he wasn’t 100% successful at managing his emotions or his actions during those previous experiences you can highlight the ways he was successful. Just knowing that those scared feelings go away can be reassuring for children.
Are you as the parent just as nervous as your child? It’s ok to walk this journey of being nervous about school alongside your son, but it’s important to recognize how your feelings and anxiety impact him. Admit if you are nervous too and talk about why. It’s good for your son to know how much you love him and that you sometimes worry about him when you can’t be together. Talk about how you cope with those feelings of anxiety so that he knows that what he is feeling is normal and surmountable. Do put on a brave front! Remember that if you project confidence, your son will likely mimic that. Save all of your deepest anxieties for your partner or friends so you don’t give your child new things to worry about that he might not have even considered.
Continue to talk about your son’s feelings about school during the first few days, weeks, and months. Point out the times when he is successful at school and when you can tell that he feels confident about himself. Acknowledge that there may be setbacks as he transitions to the new school year but try to build on moments of accomplishment and achievement, even if they are small.
For some children, fear and anxiety can become more than parents are equipped to handle alone. If your child struggles with anxiety to the point that it is consistently impacting his life and health negatively, please talk to your pediatrician about speaking with a counselor or psychologist.
Whether it starts with a whimper or shout of joy, this school year will lead your child to wonderful new opportunities, experiences, knowledge, and friends. It might be a little scary, but it’s also really exciting.