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  • Writer's pictureEloise

Supporting children with school anxiety in times of transition

The news that all school children will return to the classroom on Monday 8th March will have been music to the ears of many parents who have been struggling to juggle work, home schooling and home life over the past year. Some children will relish the idea of going back to school, but many will feel heightened levels of anxiety and stress.

School anxiety after a break, such as a holiday, is quite common and often subsides quickly once everyone gets used to the pattern of routines and schedules that comes along with school and term time activities. This year, however, has lacked any real sense of normality. Children who usually feel anxious or stressed may find that their levels of anxiety are much higher than normal and some children who do not usually have this difficulty may be experiencing it for the first time in their lives.

So what can we do to support our children (and ourselves) through this time of transition and change?

I find that four simple words are helpful here - we can work through them as a process which means we are more able to support our children and less likely to become overwhelmed ourselves:


  1. AWARE. Be aware of any changes in your child's behaviour and moods. Some children display anxiety and stress by having tantrums, outbursts, crying more frequently or becoming withdrawn. Other children may develop unhelpful habits such as nail biting, picking at their skin or lip licking. For some children this could be completely out of character and for others it might be that you notice these behaviours worsening. Often this occurs because the child is unable to understand or communicate exactly how they are feeling so they use actions instead of words. It is easy to think that they are just misbehaving but usually this kind of behaviour is their way of showing everyone that they are feeling uncomfortable or unhappy. When some children become extremely anxious they try to control everything around them to make them feel more secure. This may mean that they become 'fussy' about their food or they exert control over their sleep habits. Noticing any of these signs is the first step in being able to support them. Intervening early when they are showing signs of anxiety and stress is the best way to ensure that it doesn't become a bigger problem going forwards.

  2. CARE. If your child is showing signs of anxiety or stress it is extremely important that they feel that you are on their side, that you understand that they are not being difficult and that you are there to support and help them. This is not the right time to lay down the law or introduce any new rules, routines or activities into your family's daily life. Anxious or stressed children need much more time to process their feelings and emotions, you may need to spend more time with them one to one, show them more affection and love and find ways to help them to express themselves in other ways. Doing some calm activities with your child like reading stories, drawing or painting or craft activities or going outside in nature may help them to communicate how they are feeling without the pressure of time or the feeling that they are being questioned. Do not dismiss their thoughts and feelings as silly or irrational - it doesn't feel that way to them! Let them open up and say whatever they are feeling without judgement. Opening and keeping open the lines of communication will help, not just in the short term, but will also be a benefit as they grow older. Knowing that they can talk to you about anything and everything is the best way for children to be able to deal with anxiety and stress at all ages and stages in their lives.

  3. PREPARE. One of the best ways to reduce school anxiety for children is to prepare them as much as possible for the upcoming change. Anxious children do not like surprises and, while you cannot predict absolutely everything that might occur on a normal school day, you can make sure they know the basic routines. Talk through the first day back, starting with the routines you are going to go through to get ready to leave the house. Make sure they know which entrance they will use to go into school, and explain any of the routines and procedures they may need to follow that the school has put into place for safety and hygiene. Address any anxieties or issues your child brings up around these routines and processes. If you cannot find a way to minimise their anxiety, let them know that you will speak to the school staff to see if there is anything they can do to help. Work together to make sure their bags are packed and their clothes are ready the night before and decide together what they will have for breakfast the next morning. Allow extra time in the morning to get ready for school and stay as calm as you can, even if they get upset. Think carefully about the words you are using and reassure them that it is ok to be worried but that you have a plan and will help them with everything they need. Review these plans over the first week back, be flexible and adjust things as you need to. Many children go into school well on the first day but struggle the next day instead so you may need to go through this process many times as new or different fears, anxieties and stresses arise.

  4. SHARE. Having an anxious or stressed child can be extremely tiring, both emotionally and physically. If you are able to share the load with another family member then make sure you do. If you have friends who understand what you are dealing with or who are going through the same difficulties, talk to them and support each other. Be kind to yourself and look after your own emotional needs so that you are in the best place to support your child. Make use of any support that is offered through the school. Schools have many resources available to them to support children and families but sometimes you need to ask as you may be doing a very efficient job of looking as though you are coping well without it. If you feel you and or child need further support or interventions, make an appointment with your GP, look at the wealth of information available in books or online or join a support group for families who are on a similar journey to you.

Wishing you all a calm and happy first day back to school this week : )

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