8 proven strategies to overcome school anxiety
As we approach the end of the first school term, most children have settled into the regular routines and rhythms of school life. If you have a kindergartener, they’re more than likely seasoned pros at this school business by now. They can navigate the canteen line, remember library day, have received a truck load of stickers, and maybe even an award or two at assembly. And, they no longer cry at drop off. Their back to school anxiety is gone, and they are feeling comfortable and secure in their new environment.
Except, maybe they’re not.
When back to school anxiety lingers
If your child is still clinging to you as the bell rings, asking for days off, or even kicking and screaming and outright refusing to go, this can be really worrying for parents. Not to mention frustrating, embarrassing, guilt inducing and heartbreaking.
Now, I’ve been a school mum for 4 years now, and I can tell you that every year, there are usually one or two children who have a more difficult time settling in than others. They still become teary at drop off or are reluctant to let go of mum and dad, they take a little longer to make friends, and that busy, loud, shuffling canteen line is still a little overwhelming a few terms in.
Often, these kids do eventually settle in and become comfortable. Some kids are simply more sensitive and need a little bit of extra time. And with some gentle coaxing, some encouragement, and a calm and kind approach from their parents and teachers, they overcome their worries.
But I also worked in child and adolescent mental health for over 10 years. And I have seen A LOT of kids with school refusal. So I can also tell you that some kids do not settle in eventually. Sometimes, continued anxiety that lasts well into the school year can be a sign that your child needs more help and support, and possibly some professional intervention in order to overcome their anxiety.
So what can you do? And how do you know if they need professional help?
8 ways to help your child overcome their anxiety
1. Set up a meeting with your child’s school
The very first thing you can do to help, is arrange to meet with all the key players at your child’s school. The class teacher, school counsellor, principal or assistant principal, learning support teacher, stage leader, year co-ordinator, welfare teacher etc.
Everyone needs to be on the same page and have a clear understanding of what is going on for your child. There is no need to feel nervous about this – schools are there to help and are usually very happy to work with you in any way they can to support your child.
2. Reframe negative language
It is important to understand that your child is not deliberately trying to misbehave, defy you, or cause trouble. It is not that your child doesn’t want to go to school. Your child feels they can’t go to school. They are feeling anxious and scared, and unable to cope with the demands of the situation.
This distinction is important and it is vital that everyone involved understands it. “Tough love” is not the answer here, and may in fact, make the situation worse. While the term “school refusal” is commonly used, the term “school anxiety” is much more accurate.
3. Choose a support person
Have your child select a teacher or other support person at school that they feel safe with. It may be their class teacher, the principal, the school counsellor or even someone who works in the office. Who it is is not important. But whoever it is, should be available to meet your child in the mornings and help them get settled.
It is far easier for your child if you are able to hand them over to the same trusted person each day. This way they are going from one safe person (that’s you), to another. Lining up with the whole school, or walking into a noisy classroom may simply be too overwhelming for your child right now.
Instead, the support person may meet your child at the front gate, sit with them in the office until they feel ready to join their class, settle them in their classroom before everyone else arrives, or even accompany them into class and remain there with them until they feel comfortable.
4. Start where your child is at
If your child is not feeling confident to remain at school all day, that’s ok. If they can only make it to the front gate, that’s also ok. If being on a busy playground is too much for them right now, yep, you guessed it, still ok. Start where they are at.
Find out what they feel capable and confident to manage and start there. Some of the kids I’ve worked with in the past felt anxious just putting on their school uniform. So that’s where we started. Pushing them to do tasks that they are not yet equipped to manage will only increase their feelings of anxiety and overwhelm.
5. Work step by step towards a goal
Once you have a starting point, work with your child to fill in the rest of the steps towards their goal. Make these steps small and attainable, but not too easy. They should be just challenging enough that your child feels accomplished and capable when they complete them.
But be realistic. If all they can manage this week is to hang out in the office with the principal for 15 minutes, then heading into class unaided and staying all day is probably an unrealistic goal for next week.
6. Teach your child coping skills
Give your child some strategies and tools to use when they are feeling anxious. Mindful breathing is a great one that can help them feel calm and think more clearly. Simply have them breathe in slowly through their nose, filling their stomach with air, then slowly out through their mouth again. It should take around 6 seconds to complete this cycle.
Slow, deep breathing helps to switch off the stress response and sends a message to the brain that there is no threat nearby. For more calming mindfulness exercises, download my free kids mindfulness workbook.
7. Help them challenge unhelpful or negative thinking
Resist the urge to tell your child they have “nothing to worry about”. Instead, encourage your child to tell you their fears and concerns. Validate how they’re feeling and then explore these thoughts and feelings with them some more.
Ask them for the evidence that what they’re worried about will happen. Ask them “What’s the worst that could happen”. Think about times in the past when they’ve felt anxious but used their coping strategies to get through. Remind them that they are capable by drawing on past experiences and not allowing them to focus on “what-ifs.”
8. Call in the professionals
The longer your child’s school anxiety goes unchecked, the worse it will become. When we avoid the things we fear, we do not learn how to cope with them, and so our fear becomes worse. If you’ve tried these strategies, or if your child’s anxiety is seriously affecting their ability to attend school, and/or learn while they are there, it may be time to speak to a psychologist or school counsellor about getting some extra help.
There is no shame in needing professional help to manage your child’s anxiety. You haven’t done anything wrong. Anxiety is not caused by bad parenting and it does not make your child a bad kid. In fact, seeking professional help may the best thing you ever do for them.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.