I think we can all remember the anticipation of a new school year. The excitement of beginning anew, the anticipation of seeing old friends or meeting new ones, waiting for the letter that tells us what homeroom we are in and who our teacher would be. I think we can also all remember the jitters before school as well – the butterflies in our stomach, the dread of not having any friends in our class or not meeting new ones, the fear that our teacher would be the “awful” one, and the fear that this would be the worst year of our life.
What we need to keep in mind is that although we know that it will all be OK (because somehow we survived school), we need to keep in mind that our children do not know this. For them, the anxiety is real and our job is to keep it at a healthy level – a level where it motivates them to do their best, to rise to a challenge, and to pursue personal growth. When anxiety moves beyond the healthy level, the costs begin to outweigh the benefits. Personal growth is replaced by sleepless nights, upset stomachs, poor concentration, and the development of separation fears. To help us remember what they are feeling, it is important that we remember that the feelings, thoughts, and anxieties that the children have on the first day of school are really the same as those we feel on the first day of college or the first day of a new job, or even the anxiety we feel upon the return to our “established” position after a vacation. We manage these jitters because our past experiences with this type of anxiety have inoculated us, making us better able to withstand it. Children don’t have the multitude of experiences we have so they cannot call upon them as evidence that this situation will work out okay too. So, what can we do?
As parents, we can:
- Familiarize them with the environment they will be in. Take advantage of opportunities that the school district provides where children can go into the building and look around. Familiarity eases anxiety. For young children, it is learning where things are, how to find their room, or what their teacher looks like. For middle school children, it is learning how to use the lock on the locker. For teens, it is knowing where their friends will be, who they will have lunch with, who will have study hall with them.
- Give them a sense of control. Let them know that you believe in their ability to handle the situation and give them strategies for doing so. If they are worried about whether you will forget to meet them at the bus stop after school, reassure them that you will be there and then let them know what to do in case you are not. Let them know they are safe so they feel in control.
- Give them a sense of predictability. Let them know what the schedule will be like. This is important at every age. The kindergarten child wants to know what they will do when they walk in the room and what will happen after that. The tween and teen wants to know what “specials” are on each day, what after school activities they will have each day, and when the school vacations will be.
- Understand that as school becomes more imminent, their anxiety about it will increase. So, we need to prepare beforehand so that the night before is as stress-free as possible. Make sure all the items your child needs are available and put in the backpack so there is no last minute uncertainty about whether they will be “in trouble” for not being prepared. (Getting things ready beforehand also relates to giving them a sense of control and increasing the predictability that the first interaction with the teacher will be a positive one).
- Help them reframe their anxiety. While my own children would get so frustrated with me when I said this, it is still one of my favorite phrases – and one I have all of my students repeat before an exam – “I’m not worried, I’m excited!” Of course, they do not feel excited at the moment and it seems to be negating their reality, but, anxiety and excitement have the same physiological effect on our body; they both activate our fight/flight system. The label we give that physical event, however, changes our reaction to that physiology. So, excitement raises our belief that the situation will turn out positively, while nervousness makes us focus on how we need to protect ourselves from what is about to happen. The focus changes the strategies we use in the situation and excitement leads to better strategies for handling the jitters we feel. If they are worried because last year was a tough one for them, reframe it as “This year is a new year”; remind them of the other positive changes that have happened and help them build on that (i.e. they can now tie their own shoes, or drive their own cars). Help them to understand that if some things have changed, school can too.
- Recognize that as school becomes more imminent, your own anxiety will increase. We need to handle our worries so they do not increase our children’s worries. If you are worried about their safety in school, talk to school administrators about it. If you are worried about their academic preparation, reach out to the teacher and find out about the support systems that are available. Most teachers offer after-school help and in many states, the American Federation of Teachers has a homework helpline that can be a wonderful resource. If you are worried that your schedule is tight and you may miss their bus drop-off or pick-up, then contact the PTA and ask if there are other parents with that concern and form a committee to help each other. If you are worried about the “bad influences” out there, remind yourself that while peer influences increase as our children get older, our influence is never wiped out. If you stay emotionally connected to your kids, they will hear your advice even when you are not there to give it.
- You may experience separation anxiety. If you feel the separation anxiety, if you feel that sense that time is moving too quickly and your “baby” is gone, remember that every phase of life brings its joy, and this will too. Recognizing the joy in the moment allows us to form beautiful memories of the past and positive hopes for the future. I always find comfort in the idea that growing up does not mean they will not need us; it means they will need us differently.
If you happen to be a teacher and you are reading this, there are, of course, things you can do as well to reduce your students’ anxiety. You can have a welcome note on their desks when they arrive so that they immediately know they are joining the community of your classroom, a place where you will treat each other with respect. Invite them to write you back so you can learn more about them. Have a week of changing seats rather than assigned seats this way you can see the dynamics among the various students and they can realize that the potential for their social group is larger than the few people who sit near them. Have everyone say only their name on a daily basis for the first week so everyone learns names – and the shy students practice speaking without feeling any anxiety about what they have to say or remember (such as trying to remember all the names that have already been said – a task that terrifies many students). Talk to your colleagues about other class community bonding activities they utilize so that you can further ease your students’ beginning of the year anxiety.
Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or a student, a new school year brings new anxieties. I imagine that even reading these strategies caused some anxiety. Anxiety lessens, but never disappears – and that is a good thing because at a healthy level, anxiety helps us grow. So, remember what I said – every time we are anxious, it inoculates us from future anxiety. While we may experience jitters in a variety of settings over our lifetime, the jitters do get less. The anxiety decreases and the anticipation/excitement increases. Our coping skills improve because we increase our experiences and are able to apply the knowledge gained to other situations.
I hope these strategies will help you to enjoy the coming school year or whatever new situation you face. Keep in mind the best advice I know for handling a new experience:
“You’re off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way” -Dr. Seuss
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