The start of the new school year brings an expected degree of excitement and stress for all students. For the anxious child, however, back to school jitters can go into hyperdrive generating a worry whirlwind of “What if’s” that can overwhelm both children and parents.
Well-intentioned parents often default to reassuring statements, such as “Don’t worry about it’” or “Everything will be fine” in response to their children’s barrage of “What if” worries. Unfortunately, these types of reassurances do little to help your child develop effective coping techniques and actually may compound their anxiety.
Focus On “What Is” Instead Of “What If’s”
A more effective strategy to help your child cope with “What if” fears of the future is to help your child focus on the facts of “What is” in the present moment. Anchoring the mind and body by experiencing “what is” in your child’s present control helps to weaken the “what if” fear of uncertainty.
Most Common Back to School Worries
Here are some of the most common back to school worries and quick tips to help your child take control of “what is” so that they start school with calm and confidence:
“What if I get lost?”
To help your child acclimate to new schedules, routines, and surroundings, especially if transitioning to a new school, take advantage of attending your school’s Meet-The-Teacher Days and Orientation events prior to the first day of school. Accompany your child on a mini walk through of his/her daily schedule starting at school drop off to their cubby/locker, classrooms, cafeteria, gym, and closest bathrooms along the way. Some children may want to take photos or videos to review later at home if they get lost worry pops up again (“What if I forget the way?”). Remind your child that everyone is trying to find their way at the beginning of the year, so asking a friendly face for directions finding a classroom is expected and may even be the start to a new friendship!
“What if my teachers are strict/mean/tough?”
Take the time to introduce your child to his/her teachers during the Meet-The-Teacher Day and Orientation. Your priority here is to help facilitate a positive connection so that your child has a welcoming and “nice” first impression of their teachers. Some children may require some advance preparation or role-play practicing key get-to-know-you questions they can ask of their teachers. For example, “What was something fun you did this summer?” “Can you show me your favorite area of the classroom?”
Another effective strategy is to answer the “what if” question with a question. That is, ask your child “When is a teacher ‘mean or strict’?” Children frequently reply with examples of violating a rule or not following a classroom expectation, such as talking when the teacher is talking, being disruptive, etc. Follow up with a solution-focused question: “What can you do to prevent this?” The obvious answer is to follow class rules, work during work time, talk during talk time, etc.
Asking questions versus telling your child what to do and not do, helps your anxious child activate their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which can become overwhelmed during times of stress. Furthermore, encouraging your child to identify and imagine what choices they have control over in the situation disputes the worried thought, reduces anxiety, and increases confidence.
“What if I don’t make any friends?”
Remind your child of their past social success. “Remember how at the beginning of last school year when you didn’t know your new classmates? And now you have made several new friends.” Discuss the ways in which your child was able to accomplish this friendship success, e.g. giving great friendly greetings, showing interest in others by asking questions, giving compliments, and being helpful. Two great resources written for kids are A Smart Girl’s Guide to Knowing What to Say (American Girl) for girls, and Dude, That’s Rude! (Get Some Manners) for boys. Encourage your older students to join clubs and school extracurricular activities.
Help nurture your child’s social success by scheduling play dates with new classmates. Remember: kids go to school to see and be with their friends. Moreover, the research is clear: when students have a strong positive connection to their school community, they are more likely to be engaged, motivated and successful academically, socially, and psychologically. So, make creating and encouraging opportunities for positive social connection a priority for your child.
Create Calm with a Daily Dose of Belly Breathing
Lastly, and most importantly, model, teach and engage your child in the powerful daily practice of slow belly breathing.
How do you belly breathe? Simply inhale through your nose, filling your lungs and belly with fresh cool air. Hold for 1-2 seconds. Then exhale through your lips low and slow. Tell your child to imagine you’re filling a balloon with air as you notice your belly expanding; then imagine you’re deflating that balloon when you exhale. Repeat. Notice how your brain and body become more relaxed, loose, and still with each slow exhale.
Belly breathing can be used to help calm anxious feelings in the moment, much like an aspirin. However, when practiced as a daily habit, belly breathing has a powerful preventative effect, buffering our minds and body from future stress.
Incorporate belly breathing into the natural routine of your child’s day, such as when you are reading together or tucking your child in bed at night. The more you practice belly breathing, the more likely it will become a tool your child will use in times of stress and anxiety.