Home and Family     Camps     Camp Guide    

Child Behavior: Making the shift from pool to school

6 tips for getting your child ready to head back to school

The days are getting shorter, which means summer will soon be ending and a new school year will begin. Some children are eager, and even excited, about going back to or starting school. For them, the change from unstructured activities to a structured day is not only easy but a highly anticipated one.

The transition from fun filled unstructured summer days to the often rigorously structured schedule that accompanies the school year is potentially challenging and anxiety producing for any child, even if the change is a highly anticipated one. Whether your child is entering a new grade, new school, or possibly starting kindergarten, she may be feeling anxious even if she is looking forward to the new experience.

Anticipatory anxiety

Some children experience what might be called, "anticipatory anxiety." These children, who exhibit beyond the normal jitters or anxieties about school, may develop significant physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches or complain of vague aches and pains. Some children even experience real panic at the idea of school and develop what is clinically called "school phobia."

If your child is experiencing more than the usual cluster of 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 be able to meet with your child and offer some guidance with regard to seeking outside resources. Barring any unusual problems, there are many things you can do to ease the transition jitters your child may have.

Fear of the unknown

Most anticipatory anxiety is not based on the reality of the upcoming event, but rather on the perception of the event formed in the child's mind, the "What if's!" 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 and reducing the anxiety of an upcoming event is to begin the process early! Anxiety is always higher when there are a significant number of unknowns. Make the unknowns known! The more time a child has to get used to the idea of change and the more potential exposure she has to the event, the easier the process of change will be.

READ MORE: Sometimes a little stress is ok for kids--find out why!

Tips to get your child excited about starting school

Although all these suggestions are not germane to all children returning to or starting school for the first time, the following have proven helpful for assisting children with the beginning of a new school year.

  • For children starting school for the first time, familiarization with the building can be extremely helpful, not only to alleviate anxiety, but also to avoid potentially problematic situations.
  • Visit the school and show your child his classroom, the nurse's office, bathrooms, lunchrooms, bus pick-up and drop off sites, as well as where you will pick him up, should the need arise. If your child's school doesn't offer maps, make one for your child.
  • Talk to your child about the events at school, always keeping a positive perspective about new activities, homework and friends.
  • Ask your child about her concerns about starting school. Rehearse possible situations she thinks might arise. Rehearsing what would you do or say is an excellent way to prepare your child for some of the "what if's" that invariably come up.
  • Children should also have emergency numbers to immediately reach you. Despite the school having contact numbers, it is always reassuring for children to carry these with them.
  • Help your child understand that she isn't the only child feeling anxious. During the initial days of the new school year, teachers often help everyone have a good beginning and feel comfortable.

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

Other articles by Paul Schwartz