Early Education     K-12    

Child Behavior: Child Psychologist, Dr. Paul Schwartz, Discusses School Anxiety

Some children find the start of school to be a fearful time

The new school year is almost upon us, and for some children the change from the unstructured and fun activities of a summer day to a structured school day is an easy one, but for others the change can be quite difficult.

Dr. Paul Schwartz provides his insight into understanding why children find the first day of school a fearful time, and offers three suggestions for easing these anxieties:

Don’t wait for September to start routines

Whether your child is entering a new grade, new school, or possibly starting kindergarten, he may be feeling anxious even if he’s eagerly looking forward to the new experience. Early August is usually a good time to begin thinking about, and discussing, the school routines that need to be set in place. Returning to a more rigorously structured day and sleep schedule for children right before school starts can exacerbate the whole “back to school” experience. 

Most children do experience anxiety
However, there are some children who exhibit beyond the normal jitters or anxieties about school, and may develop significant physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach-aches or complain of vague pains. Some children even experience real panic at the idea of school and develop what’s clinically called “school phobia.”

If your child is experiencing more than the usual symptoms that accompany anxiety for any new or changing situation, you might want to seek professional help or at least discuss your concerns with the school psychologist. The school psychologist may also meet with your child and offer guidance to you regarding outside resources. 
Barring any unusual problems that may need the help of a professional, there are many things you can do to help ease the transition jitters your child has.

Perception of the event can make it worse

Most anticipatory anxiety both for children and adults alike is not based on the reality of the upcoming event but rather on the perception of the event formed in the person’s mind. Literally, and especially for children, the fantasy “what ifs” are often the source of anxiety, not the event itself. The key to changing a child’s perception, reducing their anticipatory anxiety, or helping a child adjust to a new routine, is to begin the process early! Anxiety is always higher when there are a significant number of unknowns.
The more time a child has time to get used to the idea of change, and the more potential exposure he or she has to the event, the easier the process of change will be.

Read our story on "easing first day jitters"

Here are three suggestions:

1. Ask your child what his concerns are about starting school. Rehearse possible situations that could arise (“what would you do if this or that happened?”) Then rehearse a solution.

2. Help your child understand that he isn't the only child that is anxious. There are a lot of other kids just as uneasy during the initial days of a new school year and, the teacher will help everyone make a good beginning and feel comfortable. 

3. Shop for school clothes and supplies early, even though you don't have the complete list of supplies from your child's teacher.  Let your child make the choices for lunchbox, backpack and some supplies, this can help alleviate anxiety for your child by making them a part of the decision making process, and giving them a sense of control.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.