Everyone remembers what it’s like to go back to school after a carefree summer holiday. You worry about what your teacher will be like, who will be in your class, and the homework and assignments that lie ahead. It’s a stressful time of year because there are so many “unknowns”.
Most children experience some degree of nervousness before returning to class, but others feel a debilitating fear that impacts everything from sleep to behaviour and personality.
“Back to school anxiety ranges from normal nerves to full-on terror,” said Rebecca Mitchell, a Registered Clinical Counsellor with The Wishing Star Lapointe Developmental Clinic in Surrey.
For children with learning difficulties, just the idea of school can induce extreme fear – mostly because they’ve struggled to excel in past grades. According to Mitchell, anxiety in children with learning disabilities is also often connected to the way they learn.
“We all have different styles of taking in and processing information,” she said. “It can be challenging to adapt to one learning style. The majority of our classrooms are auditory-based, so a child who doesn’t process verbal well, will feel overwhelmed.”
But how can parents distinguish between normal back to school jitters and serious anxiety issues?
If your children start telling you they don’t want to go back to school or don’t want summer to end, but aren’t having trouble sleeping and are still engaging in activities, chances are they’re just struggling with the return to routine. Think of it as mourning the loss of freedom that comes with summer. We’ve all been there.
Serious anxiety, however, often shows up in the form of significant sleep issues, withdrawal from activities, a dysregulation of behaviour, and a lot more acting out.
“If kids have tantrums several times a day, get to school and experience complete meltdowns, or run away from school, this is beyond nerves,” said Mitchell.
She also cautioned parents against mistaking anxiety for misbehaviour, adding that anxiety occurs because the brain perceives a harmful event or threat that triggers the fight-or-flight response. It’s a psychological reaction.
Parents can help ease their child’s anxiety by building connections, predictability and resilience into their daily lives, according to Mitchell.
“Humans are wired for CONNECTION. If children don’t feel connected to their teachers, it can be very unsettling to be at school every day,” she said.
Parents can engage in conversations with their child’s teacher and share aspects of the conversation with their child in order to build connections.
For some kids, however, being separated from a parent is the biggest cause of stress. To ease separation, Mitchell tells parents to give their kids a way to hold on to them when they’re at school – from goodbye rituals to symbols, or notes.
“We had a parent one time who had a grade 10 student with significant anxiety and the mother would take a little bite out of his sandwich every day,” Mitchell said.
She did this so that her son would remember that she was thinking of him throughout the day.
In terms of PREDICTABILITY, establishing a routine is key to combatting back to school anxiety. Ensure your child gets enough sleep, eats healthy, exercises, and minimizes their screen time. Covering these basic needs gives children the foundation to cope with the challenges they face in school.
RESILIENCE plays a role in helping anxious kids too. Don’t just reassure your child that everything will be fine and tell him or her not to worry. Have you ever had a problem and a friend gave you similar advice? It often does little to make you feel better.
“Normalize worries and fears,” Mitchell said. “Encourage children to feel their sadness, so they don’t just stuff it down.”
At Eaton Arrowsmith (EA), anxiety is most common in first year students because they are starting at a new school with new peers, new teachers and a different style of learning.
“Fear of failure creates a great deal of anxiety,” said Natalie Poirier, EA’s head academic teacher and math specialist. “Students come to us from various backgrounds and bring a lot of anxiety from past school experiences with them.”
Many children have been told that their learning disabilities will be with them for life – that if they can’t do something today, they won’t be able to do it tomorrow. EA does not subscribe to this way of thinking. It only increases students’ anxiety and prevents them from learning.
“We believe failure, or making mistakes, is part of learning and it’s actually how our brains grow,” Poirier said.
This philosophy is called the growth mindset and it’s at the core of everything EA does. According to Poirier, if you follow the growth mindset, you believe intelligence is malleable and that students can work on their learning disabilities. A fixed mindset is the opposite of the growth mindset. People who think the mind is fixed believe that if something is challenging, it will always be challenging.
“We explain the growth mindset to our students because, if children are afraid of failure, it impacts how they’re willing to engage in difficult tasks,” Poirier said.
At the beginning of every school year, EA teachers also establish a classroom culture. They outline expected behaviour, develop routines and make the unfamiliar familiar because new places, situations, and patterns often spark milder forms of anxiety.
“It’s normal to feel anxious when our brains are learning something new,” Poirier said.
To combat anxiety, EA teachers also use mindfulness, which involves having a student take time out from what they’re working on to sit quietly and calmly.
“Engaging in mindful activity helps the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that tells the amygdala that a situation isn’t scary and we can still be at rest,” Poirier said. “This activity helps students with anxiety return to class in a happy and relaxed state.”
Continuous stress can do a lot of harm to a student’s confidence, ability to focus and progress.
“We learn best when we’re happy. When we experience anxiety, our brains aren’t as open to learning and forming new pathways,” Poirier said.
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