Back to School Anxiety in Kids: How Parents Can Help

Prepare your kids for what it will be like going back to school

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

William Sullivan
William Sullivan

“Any time children go through a transition or period of major change there is a normal sense of anticipation and potential stress.”

Jennifer Rapke, licensed clinical psychologist and chief of child psychiatry consultation liaison service at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital.

Most children feel excitement and perhaps nervousness about their first day back at school after summer break. 

For the 2021-22 school year, COVID-19 may bring more changes—and, for some, concerns. But what indicates garden-variety jitters compared with anxiety that warrants help? 

Area experts weighed in.

The effect that the pandemic has had for the past year and a half has only added to the difficulty of returning to school for some children.

“Any time children go through a transition or period of major change there is a normal sense of anticipation and potential stress,” said Jennifer Rapke, licensed clinical psychologist and chief of Child Psychiatry Consultation Liaison Service at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. “Since routines and structure has changed so much over the last year, we expect that a return to a more typical-looking school year may be difficult for some. This year we may also see some specific anxieties surrounding social distance, mask wearing and hygiene as well since they have been taught so heavily to be cautious about these issues for the last one and a half years.”

Young children may dream up outlandish reasons that they cannot return to school. Older children may say they do not want to go back or excessively plan their return. Striking a good balance between planning and obsessing can help children feel prepared, yet flexible if things go differently than they anticipated.

“Anxiety is often based on fear of the unknown, so anything a caregiver can do to increase awareness or give information about their areas of concern will likely help some,” Rapke said. “There are books about going to school you could purchase or borrow from the library. You could arrange for a meet and greet with school staff or for a tour of the classroom or school. You could send a comfort, transition or stress-fidget item with them to school.”

Most importantly, she encourages parents to try to talk about their children’s anxiety with them.

“We want children to know that they are supported, loved and not alone, so regularly check in and have set aside time to touch base with them,” Rapke said.

Take the time to listen, not just jump in to fix what’s wrong.

Summertime often represents for children a period of greater freedom, relaxed schedules and more time to play. While this much-needed break can help them recharge for learning in September, it also means that they are out of synch for the schooltime schedule. To combat this effect, Doug McCaffer, special education K-sixth teacher at Liverpool Central School District, wants parents to get back to their children’s sleeping and eating schedules at least two weeks before school starts.

“Start getting them up at the time they’re normally get up and having breakfast when they’ll eat during the school year,” McCaffer said.

Figure out when they will need to get up by contacting the bus garage to learn when they should expect the bus.

McCaffer also recommends working with children on some “light academics” a few weeks before school starts, such as reading or completing a few easy math problems together as a review.

“Do basic stuff you can work with them on,” McCaffer said.

Knowing what their surroundings and teachers will look like comforts children apprehensive about starting school. Children may feel more at ease after reviewing the school website to view photos of the teachers, grounds and the school’s theme for the year. If possible, visiting the school for an open house can help them feel more comfortable. These measures should put most children at ease, unless they feel truly anxious.

“The key difference between these normal jitters and a concerning level of anxiety is the level of intensity and persistence of these thoughts and feelings,” Rapke said. “Are they just momentarily tense while talking about school or are they spending hours ruminating on these worries to where they won’t eat dinner or go out and play with friends? Does it cause them to lose multiple nights of sleep? Do they spend hours asking questions or talking about their worries?”

She added that even a day of “protest” about going to school is normal; but hours of crying or refusing to go at all should concern parents.

Anxiety that prevents the child from eating, sleeping or other routine daily activities for a period of time may indicate that professional help is warranted, as well as an inability to calm down with distractions or comforting supports.

“Returning to school is a big transition that can be difficult for any child,” said William E. Sullivan, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Golisano Center for Special Needs at SUNY Upstate Medical University. “Every child is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to facilitate an easy transition back to school. It is a big change that can be quite stressful.”

He encourages parents to “be patient and responsive to your child’s individual needs. Get back into a comfortable routine as soon as you can—the smaller the change, the easier the transition will be.”