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Back to School Anxiety

How to help kids manage worries and have a successful start to the school year

Writer: Caroline Miller

Clinical Expert: Rachel Busman, PsyD, ABPP

en Español

The start of the new school year is exciting for most kids. But it also prompts a spike in anxiety: Even kids who are usually pretty easy-going get butterflies, and kids prone to anxiety get clingier and more nervous than usual. Parents feel the pain, too: Leaving a crying child at preschool isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. And having to talk a panicked first grader onto the bus or out of the car at school can be a real test of your diplomatic skills.

Kids who normally have a little trouble separating from mom and dad will see their anxiety peak during times of stress or transition, notes Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety. The start of school may be especially challenging for kids who are entering a transition year, she adds — going into kindergarten, into middle school, to a new school. It can also be stressful if there’s a change in your child’s social support system — maybe a good friend has moved, or has a different teacher this year.

For most kids the new-school-year worries will fade and the anxious behaviors will be transient, Dr. Busman adds. The goal for parents is to be supportive without exacerbating your child’s worries. Here are tips for helping nervous kids have a successful transition back to school.

Take your own temperature

For parents, the start of the year can be anxiety inducing, too, Dr. Busman notes. The pressure’s on you to reinstate routines after the summer break and arrange for new activities and schedules, not to speak of facing the resumption of homework.

Dr. Busman recommends taking your own temperature to make sure you’re not passing on stress to your kids. And to enable you to manage your own stress, she says, it’s important not to take on more commitments than the family can handle comfortably. “I think there’s a contagion effect that we have to be careful of,” she adds.

Listen to worries

When kids express anxiety about going back to school — a new teacher, increases in homework, making a team, a friend crisis — do listen seriously.

Rather than dismissing these fears (“Nothing to be worried about! You’ll be fine!) listening to them and acknowledging your child’s feelings will help them feel more secure. And if they want to, you can bolster their confidence by helping them strategize about how to handle things they’re concerned about.

But keep in mind that kids often want to be able to talk about something they’re upset about without expecting you to fix them. Your job is validate their feelings (“I know that’s hard”) and demonstrate confidence that they can handle the situation.

Don’t ask questions that suggest you expect kids to be anxious (“Are you worried about having Mr. Connelly for math?”) but check in with them in a more casual way. “It doesn’t have to be a half-hour discussion,” notes Dr. Busman, “but in the car on the way to get a new backpack, you might ask “Do you know what you’re going to be learning in math this year?” Kids often say more when there is less pressure to “have a talk.”

Do some test runs

If you anticipate that your child will be seriously nervous on the first day, it helps to give them time to get used to the new school or new classroom in advance. Go to the school several times before school starts, and do as much walking the halls as you can, to locate their classroom, the lavatory, the cafeteria, the playground. Repetition is good; going by again just to ask a question at the office, or drop off a form, gives them more chances to get comfortable being there.

If you can, introduce them to their teacher. Let them practice staying in the classroom a few minutes while you walk down the hall to drop off a note the nurse’s office.

Even driving to the school on the weekend and having them practice getting out of the car at the drop-off point can help them get familiar with that routine.

“Any opportunity for exposure, for repetition, for mastery is going to help them do what we call ‘coping ahead,’ ” Dr. Busman notes.

Let someone know

If your child needs extra support to make a successful transition, let someone at school know — their teacher, an aide, the school psychologist or the school nurse. You want to communicate that your child is looking forward to school and is excited — you’re sure they’ll be fine — but they will be much more comfortable if they can meet the teacher briefly and see the classroom before the crowded, chaotic first day, when all the other kids will be there.

You’re not asking for a lot — just a little exposure that will set them up to succeed. And you’d like the staff to be alert to signs that they might need an assist.

Arrange for a hand-off

If you think your child will be reluctant to separate, it’s very helpful to have someone primed to meet and engage them when you arrive. The teacher may be too overwhelmed to pay special attention to your child, Dr. Busman notes, “but maybe they have a buddy in the class, or you could ask an aide, the nurse, the school psychologist, to plan for a handoff.”

What you want that person to do is not to talk about or dwell on their anxiety, she explains, but to engage your child in some activity. Asking the child for help is a good way to do that — “Can you help me carry all the magnet tiles over to this bin?”

Giving the child a role is transparent, Dr. Busman notes. “They’re not pretending the parents aren’t leaving, but they’re helping your child get involved in the classroom, be part of the community. Kids for the most part love to please adults and want to be part of the activity, so it can really help take their minds off anxiety.”

When separation problems persist

Leaving a child who is crying or whining at school is a tough thing for any parent to do. “But most kids are pretty resilient,” Dr. Busman notes, “and we don’t want to underestimate their ability to cope. Most kids recover quickly once mom or dad leaves.”

If your child’s teacher reports that they bounce back and participate enthusiastically in activities during the day, the best way to help them get more confident about separating from you is not worrying too much about their complaints.

“It’s not being a bad parent to ignore a little bit of whining or reluctance,” says Dr. Busman. “It will actually help a child move beyond it if you give more attention to things that you do want to see them do.”

You want to give specific praise for brave behavior. For example, remind them you will be back to get them and tell them things like, “Great job coming to preschool today. When I pick you up I hope you’ll tell me something fun you did.”

“The way we as adults interact and react is so important: a little bit of active ignoring, a little bit of positive attention and a lot of encouragement,” Dr. Busman notes.

If kids continue to have full-blown separation problems, and fears that something bad will happen to their parents interfere with their ability to function in school, they should be evaluated by a mental health professional.

Stomachaches and headaches

Anxiety about school sometimes takes the form of headaches and stomachaches in the morning that kids say make them too sick to go to school. If your child develops a pattern of these symptoms, it’s important to get your child checked out by a pediatrician; you don’t want to overlook a medical problem.

But if the pattern persists, going to school may be the problem.

The most important thing a parent can do when kids resist going is to continue sending them to school anyway. This may be difficult, but if we allow children to avoid situations that make them anxious, we can inadvertently reinforce that those situations are indeed dangerous or scary.

But if a child continues to complain about physical symptoms, it’s also important to investigate what might be causing anxiety. It could be sign of an anxiety disorder, or another problem at school. For instance:

School refusal

When stomachaches and headaches and other reasons not to go to school — or to go late or leave early — become persistent, a child may have developed what’s called school refusal.

“Everyone resists going to school once in a while, but school refusal is an extreme pattern of avoiding school that causes real problems for a child,” says Dr. Busman. School refusal is distinguished from normal avoidance by a number of factors:

  • How long a child has been avoiding school
  • How much distress they associate with attending school
  • How strongly they resist
  • How much their resistance is interfering with their (and their family’s) life

If a child’s resistance to school is overwhelming and prolonged, they should be evaluated by a mental health professional, and it’s good to proactive rather than waiting months for it to pass. “Unfortunately, the longer a child misses school, the harder it is to get back in the routine,” Dr. Busman notes, “because being absent reinforces the anxiety that is keeping them away.”

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I calm back-to-school anxiety?

You can calm back-to-school anxiety by doing some test runs. Go to the school several times before school starts to let your child walk around the halls, find their classroom, and meet their teacher if possible. Repetition will give them a chance to be comfortable with the routine. Also, having someone waiting for them, like a friend, nurse, or school psychologist, for the first drop-off can be helpful.

How can I help a child with school anxiety?

You can help a child with school anxiety by modeling stress management. When your child expresses anxiety about going back to school, listen and take it seriously rather than dismissing their fears. Acknowledging their concerns can make them feel more secure. Then, you can help them strategize how to handle the things they are concerned about.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.