A new school year is here. For children heading off to elementary and primary school, that often means the thrill of a brand-new backpack, the smell of erasers, and, for some, feelings of nervousness and anxiety.
Feeling anxious about school is “totally natural,” says Lisa Fiore, Ph.D., the education department chair of Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. “We’re all wired for survival,” she says. “When a child is entering a new environment, it’s natural that their sensory instincts—literally, their physiological systems—kick into gear. We’re scoping it out: Will I be safe? Who are my people? Where can I go?”
Kids today also are subject to more tests, enrichment opportunities, readiness measures, and screenings than in prior generations, which can fuel anxiety. Parents might overanalyze whether their kids are reading at the right level, for example, looking for markers such as how often they read and the sophistication of the content. This makes kids’ antennas shoot straight up—and could backfire.
Parents should be cautious about projecting their worries onto their kids, says Fiore, especially when it comes to preparation. Programs meant to bolster a child’s educational experience can make a child feel pressured to achieve a certain goal. “But what is the golden standard that we’re reaching for?” she questions.
Your child’s educational career is long, and nobody’s journey looks alike. “Parents worry, ‘If my child doesn’t understand, they’re doomed for failure,’” she says. “We have to find balance and recognize where we feel anxious and where we feel tugged.”
Fiore urges parents to focus on the here-and-now, not on the what-ifs, such as, “Will my child read on time?” and “What if they don’t make friends?”
That said, there are ways for parents to help anxious kids cope. Here she shares four tips for easing the transition to school.
1. Familiarize your child with their setting.
Take your child to visit the school ahead of the first day. “Depending on the child and place, getting familiar with the territory is really important,” Fiore says. “Visit, whether it’s a scheduled visit or just a separate drop-by on a weekend. Giving children of any age—humans of any age—more information arms them with knowledge, which is always helpful and gives them a reference point.”
Make sure to explain routines, such as when a child will go to lunch or get picked up. “This is often helpful for anyone at any age to feel a sense of predictability and mastery. ‘I can do this. This is familiar to me,’” she says.
2. Expect some regression and separation anxiety.
If your child regresses or experiences separation anxiety, it doesn’t mean they are immature or ill-equipped to start school. It’s normal. “Often, when we make these leaps forward developmentally, it’s not uncommon to have a brief period of regression,” Fiore says. For instance, a child who’s been potty-trained since three might have bedwetting, because they’re nervous again. Or children who were comfortable playing with whoever happened to be at the local park during the summer might hold back when faced with the school playground.
To help mitigate this, set a departure plan that your child can rely on. “With transitions and separation, routine is often really helpful: ‘We’re going to say goodbye at the window, I’m going to do two kisses, and then we’re going to move on.’ Have a routine where the child can take some ownership of it and know what they’re doing,” she suggests.
On the other hand, if you have a kid who doesn’t want you around, roll with it. But make sure you remind them that they can always come back and ask for more support when they need it. This fosters security and independence.
3. Be on the lookout for warning signs.
Yes, some nerves are normal. Just the same, anxiety disorders affect one in eight kids. Be attuned to red flags. “For example, you notice that anxiety is creeping into more corners than you can manage, or it’s not just bedtime, but it’s also eating or stomach aches. When it starts to feel bigger than you can tidy up, then it’s important to reach out to a pediatrician—I always think it’s helpful to talk to a pediatrician and establish those relationships—and the teacher or a school counselor, just to open the channels of communication,” Fiore says.
These professionals can help put big emotions into perspective, because they have much more experience working with children in these age groups. “Parents have a much smaller perspective, as opposed to people who see this on a larger scale,” Fiore says.
Teachers and school counselors also have knowledge of what might be going on in the classroom that could impact your child. Perhaps your child is struggling due to a new academic unit, for example, or upcoming tests.
4. Give them the freedom to explore.
Letting go, which means letting kids test boundaries, get into scrapes, and problem-solve, is a key element of successful transitions. “Children aren’t allowed to make their own rules enough, such as free play and recess and all these things where they have to figure stuff out. It’s important for them to have opportunities to figure stuff out on their own,” Fiore says. “Helping them feel uncomfortable is really important, because they will sort things out for themselves. Be mindful that struggle is OK in small doses.”