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Expert: Tips to help children with stress, anxiety of returning to school

Crystal Graham
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There’s a lot of excitement around going back to school for children and adults as the weeks leading up to the return are full of planning and shopping for supplies and clothes.

However, as the actual first day of school approaches, some students find the new routine to be a big adjustment which leads to feelings of anxiety.

“Anxiety can be associated with the unknown, such as what will the teacher this year be like, what friends will be in my class, where will my classroom be, and likely other worries can pop into children’s minds,” said Cindy Smith, director of the Children’s Emotions Lab at Virginia Tech and an expert in child emotional development, parent-child interaction, and parenting behaviors. “As parents, understanding how children are feeling can be so important to helping them through school transitions.”

Adults should pay attention to changes in their child’s behavior during this time of year.

“Younger children are not likely to be able to label the emotions that they are feeling,” Smith said. “Anxiety about a new school year could look like an upset stomach or irritability about things that are not even related to school. Older children and teens might not openly express how they are feeling about the transition to a new school year,” she said.

“Always remember that children take their cues from the adults around them,” Smith said. “If parents are showing excitement about going back to school, then children will pick up on that excitement.”

Tips to ease back-to-school stress

Smith shares some ways that parents and guardians can help children ease the stress of returning to the back-to-school routine.

  • Visit the school or classroom before the year starts, which helps children to visualize what their days might look like.
  • Arrange a playdate or meet up with other children in their school.
  • Read books with children about going to school and discuss questions as you read together. For families with more than one child, having the older child read with you can also give opportunities for modeling for the younger child and for the older child to express how they are feeling too.
  • Talk with students about what goals they have for the upcoming year to help them get excited. Also, families can talk about what their children might learn in the upcoming year.
  • Any activity done with children can provide opportunities to talk about how they are feeling about school, even if the activity has nothing to do with school. Having time dedicated solely to your students shows them that you are interested in what they might need and are there to support them. Make it a no-phones time to avoid distractions.
  • Practice the routine of getting up and ready for school a few days before the year starts.
  • Make sure children have their school supplies ready for the first day.
  • Plan a fun activity after the first day of school, such as getting ice cream. This activity gives children something fun to anticipate.

Not just new clothes and supplies; mental health treatment also on back-to-school list

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Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.