Is your child anxious about starting school? 10 tips to help them (and you) with the transition
Do you have a freshly minted 5 year old heading off to school this year? Me too! Starting school is a huge milestone isn’t it? It can also be really daunting for our small humans (and us big humans, too!). So if your child is feeling anxious about starting school, that’s perfectly normal.
Yep. Everyone feels a little anxious about starting school! This is the third time I’ll send a child to kindergarten, and I’ve felt anxious every. single. time. And even though I knew they were 100% ready to go, each of my kids has had a few nervous moments in the lead up, too.
So, while it’s very common, and totally normal, if your child is anxious about starting school, there are definitely some things you can do to help. Here are 10 tips to help your child feel less anxious about starting school.
1. Allow them to feel ALL the feelings
When your child tells you that they feel anxious about starting school, it’s really tempting to say something like, “You’ll be fine once you get there.” Or, “There’s nothing to worry about.” But these statements are not helpful. They are perceived as dismissive and make your child think their feelings are not valid.
We all feel a little nervous when we start something new. This is perfectly normal. So instead of dismissing their fears, try validating how they feel. Let them know that it’s normal to feel anxious about starting school, and remind them that their classmates will be feeling nervous too. Tell them that you understand how they’re feeling and perhaps talk about a time when you felt nervous about something.
You may also like to talk to them about other times they’ve felt nervous or tried something new. Talk about how they got through it. Ask if this is still something that makes them nervous – they will more than likely say no. Use this as an opportunity to send the message that it will get easier. That sometimes things seem scarier because they are new or we don’t know what to expect. Often, once we try new things, they are not as scary as we think. And in fact, after a while, they don’t make us feel nervous any more.
2. Manage your own anxiety about starting school
Children look to us for clues about how to feel in a situation as well as how to manage it. If they see that we are anxious, they will feel anxious about starting school too! They will doubt their ability to cope in the situation. But if we send them the message that they are competent and capable and we believe they can manage it, they will believe us.
So be cautious with both your words and your actions. Children notice much more than we realise. We do not have to say the words, “I’m anxious” for our children to know that’s how we feel.
Be conscious of your body language, your tone, your behaviour. Put some strategies in place to help you cope. It’s a big day for you too! Do some deep breathing, take a step away if you need to, and find someone you can vent to if that will help. You can do this!
3. Check your expectations at home
If your child is anxious about starting school, it will likely be on their mind frequently as the big day gets closer and closer. Try to remember this when they are arguing with you about putting their toys away, or whining about having to eat their vegetables, or arguing with their little sister for what feels like the 107th time that day.
For some children, anxiety will present itself as what appears to be oppositional behaviour. This is just the fight or flight response ramping up in anticipation of what’s to come. It is normal and expected. Now is not the time to expect perfect behaviour. It’s not a free pass to do whatever they like, of course. But a little more leniency than usual may be needed right now as they deal with all the feelings and thoughts swirling around in their little bodies.
4. Schedule in extra one on one time
Your child is more than likely feeling a little uncertain and possibly sad about the idea of spending time away from you in an unfamiliar setting. Focusing on filling their emotional tank now will give them the resources and confidence they need to thrive in this new setting and therefore reduce their anxiety about starting school.
So what should you do? Play. And play. And then play some more. Let your child take the lead, and if you can, schedule in at least 10 minutes every day of one on one time. No siblings, no phone, no work, no distractions. Just the two of you, spending time, connecting and bonding over an activity of your child’s choice. And if you are unable to spend 10 minutes every day, simply schedule in as much time as you are able. Every little bit counts.
5. Talk about school. A lot.
Often, we think that if our child is anxious about something, we should avoid talking about it. Not so! We actually want to mention school frequently in the lead up to the first day. We do not want them to feel surprised with a, “Hey, guess where you’re going tomorrow!”, that feels like it came from nowhere.
Talk about their school frequently. Use the name of the school, mention their teacher or class if you know it. For very anxious children, even talking about school will be anxiety provoking, so it’s a good idea to do this often. Keep your tone neutral and be very matter of fact, in order to get them used to the idea. The more you talk about it, the more familiar it will become.
This also gives them plenty of opportunity to express how they are feeling about school. Giving them the space to do this (See point #1) will help them process and work through their anxiety about starting school before that first day.
6. Be honest with your child
Sometimes, in an attempt to ease our child’s anxiety, us adults can exaggerate the truth a little. This strategy may ease their anxiety in the moment, but will only make it worse in the long run. Because if you tell them that they don’t have to go back to school again if they don’t like it, and then this turns out to be untrue, they will lose their trust in you. Next time they feel anxious and you let them know that they can cope with their anxiety, they won’t believe you.
So please, be as honest and upfront as you can. Let them know what to expect when they arrive at school. Don’t tell them that you can stay all day, that they can call you if they miss you, that they can come home if they feel nervous, or that they’re going to play all day long…unless you know for certain that this is true.
7. Don’t oversell it
Similarly, don’t talk it up too much. Don’t tell them that it’s going to be SO much fun, and they’re never going to want to come home, and that it’s the best thing ever. Don’t tell them that they’ll learn to read and write and spell big words like their older brother, because they’ll be bitterly disappointed when this is not what happens in their first week.
Be realistic. Definitely let them know about the things they’ll do that you think they’ll enjoy (like recess and lunch!). But don’t set their expectations too high. Not only can this backfire and make them disappointed and frustrated with school, but it can also impact negatively on the way they view themselves, if they’re unable to achieve what you said they would.
8. Prepare them for the practicalities of school
Children feel less anxious when they know what’s going to happen and have a chance to practice skills. Practicing and mastering skills helps them feel competent and will boost your child’s confidence.
Practice putting on their school uniform, and doing up zippers, buttons, and shoelaces or tabs on shoes. Make them lunch in their new lunchbox for the week prior to school starting so they feel confident to open up containers, or to balance their lunch box on their lap. If school means a new routine, with an earlier wake up time, start getting up at that time now. Drive past the school if you can so they can see where they will need to go and they can remember what it looks like.
These seem like insignificant details to us adults, but practicing these things before hand, lightens the load for them just a little. Having fewer new things for your child to master in their first week frees up space in their minds to deal with other big feelings as well as new skills and experiences.
9. Give them something special to help manage their anxiety
If your child is feeling anxious about being away from you, try giving them something special to take to school. Something that will remind them of you, provide comfort or help them feel connected to you during the day.
It could be something as simple as a photograph of you together that they keep in their bag. It could be a small talisman, like these worry dolls or worry stones that they can keep in their pocket and touch when they feel anxious. Or perhaps you can make matching friendship bracelets/necklaces/anklets to wear. I’ve even heard of someone drawing tiny little matching hearts on the inside of their wrists, that their child can look at during the day.
Explain to them that if they miss you, or feel nervous during the day, they can look at/touch their special item and know that you are doing the same where you are too.
10. Be your child’s advocate
If your child is highly anxious about starting school and you are concerned about how they’ll cope, don’t be afraid to speak up. Arrange a meeting with the school prior to your child’s first day. Send an email to the teacher. Talk to the principal. Do whatever you need to do to make your child’s transition as smooth as possible.
Teachers deal with anxious children every day. They deal with back to school nerves at the start of each and every school year. They may have some ideas and strategies that will help. And at the very least, they need some input and information from you about how they may be able to help your child feel safe and secure at school. Most schools I’ve encountered are more than happy to work with families to meet children’s needs. They want your child to succeed just as much as you do!
Need more support?
If your child is starting school this year, I’d love to hear what you think of these tips! Feel free to leave a comment below. Or, head on over to our Facebook group, Mindful Little Minds Community. This group is a space where we share information, support each other and learn more about mindfulness and mindful parenting. We’re going to be talking about the transition to school all week over there, and you are more than welcome to come along and chat with other parents, share stories and tips and get some support with this huge milestone. I promise we don’t bite!
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.