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10 Ways to Minimize back-to-school anxiety

10 Ways to Minimize back-to-school anxiety

-- Dr. Anne Marie Albano
The Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CUCARD)

Summer is quickly fading away as ads for school supplies are bombarding us from every angle and families are clinging to the last vestiges of vacation.  Most children are now counting the days to the start of school.  Hopefully, the countdown is increasing their enthusiasm for seeing friends, meeting the teachers, and settling into a year of learning and maturing.  But, as every parent knows, getting your child settled into the routines of the new school year can be a bumpy transition after three months of summer fun. 

Here are some tips for minimizing the anxiety and natural upset that may accompany the start of school.


1. Start setting routines in motion  

The sooner the better to get back into the "three meals and snacks" routine, as well as the bedtime and morning routines.  Mealtimes during the summer often vary with the activities of the day.  Set your meals closer to the time you’ll eat during the school year, especially breakfast and dinner.  Ease your children back into a bedtime routine and schedule that will give them ample sleep to tackle the day ahead. Begin their school-night bedtime starting around two weeks before school starts, re-establishing bedtime routines like bathing, brushing teeth, dressing in pyjamas and settling into bed.  If you have a tuck-in routine, be sure to leave your child’s room before they fall asleep to learn the importance of soothing into slumber without feeling that you need to be right there at all times.


2. Give reading its own place in the schedule  

Help your child to find a book to read for pleasure and relaxation. If they are younger, you’ll do this together; if older, help them to find a title or series to begin. Read along on your own so you can discuss the book with them.  Reinforce 20 minutes each evening of quiet reading. You’ll be promoting reading and improving their verbal skills, but also teaching them to soothe themselves with a quiet activity. Check out this website for a list of great books for kids, and don't forget these classic books, too.


3. Turn off the electronics  

Discuss your family’s guidelines for phoning, texting, television, games and other activities that involve electronics.  With your child’s maturity and habits in mind, establish your guide for when and where they can use electronics during the school year.  Stimulation from screens and fast-packed action of games can interfere with sleep and good study habits, so define a time for turning everything off at night and parameters for use during the day.  As with any privilege, you might let your child earn extra time as they prove they can be responsible with handling their schoolwork while balancing fun and media.


4. Acquaint your child with the school & teacher 

Is this a new school or first time school for your child?  Are there changes this year that your child would benefit from knowing in advance?  You can relieve any pre-school anxiety by taking your child on a “field trip” and visiting the school in advance. If the school is open, you can likely arrange a visit to the classroom for a new child to the school.  Teachers are busy preparing in advance for opening day but can be approached to meet and greet new students.  Make this visit a fact-finding, brief, fun visit and focus on what is going to be learned throughout the year. When possible, take photos of your child with their new teacher and school and start a scrapbook as a keepsake.  Your child can add photos, school papers and special projects to the book as the year progresses.

5. Show your child the route to school  

Familiarize your child with the bus stop and the route they will be taking, making sure to point out familiar landmarks.  On the first day, introduce them to the other parents and children who are waiting for the same bus. If your child will walk to school, take a few trips to the school, walking as a family, before school starts. Make sure your child knows the adults who will be involved in their transportation to and from school, as well as those that will be greeting them at school and after school.  Discuss what to do in the event you or your designee is late in picking the child up. Explain not to panic, but where to wait and what to do. You may tell them to start homework, talk with peers and inform the teacher in charge. 

6. Engage your child in the preparations  

From picking out clothes to finding a pencil case, include your child when choosing supplies and accessories for the coming year.  They will take ownership and pride in their belongings, as well as look forward to dressing each morning and getting their backpack together each day. 

7. Set realistic & achievable expectations for the year  

Keep focus on your child’s age and developmental stage by keeping your expectations realistic. Being realistic will allow your child to stretch themselves while still allowing them to achieve goals in academics, friendships and extracurricular activities. Aiming for the very top can set your child up for disappointment and anxiety. If they are always competing with peers for the coveted first place, they may stand the risk of being lonely. Try to avoid statements such as, “you are the smartest kid in school and I know you will always get the top scores!” Temper your high-achieving expectations to make them successful while being a good class citizen, a student who links effort to outcomes, and one who knows how to share and cooperate with others.

8. Establish your child’s workspace and routine 

It’s time to clear the desks of the summer shell collections and bug catching kits in order to re-establish a place to do homework.   Establish the homework space - whether it is individual spaces for each child, or the dining room table for multiple children - and also the establish the routine. Consider the time they arrive home, their snack, their free time, whether you are available for homework help, and when the homework is expected to be complete. Discussing these expectations and setting good study habits will bode well for your child in the long term.

9. Get to know your child’s classmates and friends

Learn the names of your child’s peers and ask questions that encourage their interest and curiosity in others to ensure they make and keep friends.  Get to know the parents in order to encourage contact after school and be available for playdates and sleepovers. Study after study shows that having good “social support”, involving networks of friends and connecting with family, teachers and parents, is associated with positive mental health, improved academic outcomes and overall happiness.

10. Model a healthy & optimistic attitude about school  

Show interest in your child’s school and activities by asking questions and listening to your child.  Find out what they are most excited and positive about, as well as what interests them the least. Pay attention to the phrases or themes that pop up again and again, and engage them in problem solving when a problem crops up. Ask your child how they would like to handle the problematic situation and encourage their efforts.


The first few days or weeks of school may be filled with surprises, challenges and sometimes anxiety for both children and parents.  Keep your cool and maintain a confident attitude - your child will sense your emotions. By remaining calm they will be able to settle in more quickly and securely. Show your child that you care and understand their concerns. Help them to problem solve and manage their feelings about tricky situations. These things will go a long way in instilling confidence and building self-esteem.  If anxiety persists and your child isn’t settling after two weeks, talk first to the teacher or school counselor who can help to determine the best ways to assist your child.

Posted in: Parenting   

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