By Cara Batema
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately eight percent of children and teenagers suffer from an anxiety disorder, making it the most common pediatric mental health disorder. While most people experience stress and worry, children with anxiety encounter frequent and intense unease above and beyond a given situation. Since these children are of school age, much of their anxiety is focused on school-related worries.
Symptoms associated with school anxiety may include the following:
● Difficulty concentrating
● Refusal to go to school
● Trouble sleeping
● Excessive worry
Recognizing these symptoms will allow you to determine the source of your child’s discomfort so you choose the best strategies for overcoming anxiety. Below are a few ways to help a child with school anxiety.
Regulating Separation Anxiety
According to the Way Ahead Mental Health Association, children ages six months to six years old may demonstrate difficulty separating from their parents or caregivers. This form of angst is known as separation anxiety. While some level of separation anxiety is normal, the situation becomes a stressor for children and can be upsetting for most parents. Yet, it is important for parents to subdue their emotions, and respond to their child with both kindness and firmness.
Children with separation anxiety might react with a tantrum, crying, and/or clinging to their parent that is leaving because their brains are signaling a fight or flight response from their anxious emotions. By consistently remaining warm yet firm with your child when you depart, you demonstrate to the child that their environment is safe. Your child will eventually recognize this after you leave, and over time will accept your departure.
About a month before daycare or preschool, try leaving your child for short periods. When you’re home, leave them alone in a room while they safely play to demonstrate distance and practice separation. Make sure your child is properly fed and has had adequate sleep since being hungry or tired can contribute to anxiety.
Easing Fears Over Performance
Children with school anxiety tend to be perfectionists, which goes hand-in-hand with nervousness about performances, auditions, speaking in front of the class, and taking tests (regardless if they’re prepared for them or not). Children with anxiety may also have a fear of failure and negative intrusive thoughts.
It is very important to talk to your child about their fears. Use tactics geared toward your child’s particular struggles. For example, if your child has anxiety over a test, work through practice tests together at home and rehearse meditation exercises they can employ before taking a real test at school. If the negative thoughts persist, take your child to speak with an experienced counselor or therapist. You can also find mindfulness techniques for your child here.
While many schools have anti-bullying policies, problems associated with school bullying still exist, particularly cyber-bullying. School anxiety caused by bullying might lead to the following symptoms:
● Poor sleep,
● Reduce appetite
● Difficulty socializing with peers
● Refusing to attend school
Imagine how difficult it must be for a child to read negative comments or feel ostracized from their peers because of false accusations or pictures posted online. Or perhaps your child is physically bullied, which is both detrimental to the body and mind.
Bullying is not an easy situation to deal with, so, in addition to speaking with the school principal, teachers, and the parents of the bullies, be an advocate for your child. Encourage your child to implement positive self-talk and affirmations to combat any verbal or cyber abuse received from the bullies.
Enroll your child into self-defense classes for children who have been physically bullied. These classes will provide your child with strategies to deal with the bullying as well as give them an opportunity to have healthy interactions with peers, who might experience similar issues. For kids who might be reluctant to attend school, remind them of the things they enjoy about schools, such as learning something new, being with friends, and participating in sports or extracurricular activities. Talk to their teacher(s) about the issue and let your child know who to report to if bullying occurs.
Adjusting to Social Situations
Children with school anxiety might find it difficult to navigate through social interactions. They might worry about not having enough friends or struggle with peer pressure. Remind your child that all students are born either introverts or extroverts. Neither personality is better than the other. Explain that most introverted children are not naturally outgoing as their peers, and therefore they might not want to speak in front of the class or work in group projects. Then ask them to name some schoolmates that are extroverts. Discussions about how their friends or classmates respond to different social interactions will help your child understand that people are different and process social norms differently.
It is also important to speak with your child’s teacher about their social anxieties that occur at school. You are not present during the school day, but the teacher is there and should properly assist your child struggling with social interactions. For example, you can suggest for the teacher and your child to have a special signal to indicate that they can be called on to answer a question during class. The teacher should also be made aware of which students your child feels more comfortable working with during group assignments.
To address peer pressure or other worries your child has about their friends, initiate discourse about how your child feels. It is imperative you don’t leave your child to deal with these school anxieties on their own. Offer your help or hire tutors if your child is struggling with a particular subject and always role play to practice positive self-talk.
Preparing for Transitions
Transitions are particularly important for children in middle and high school. This is a time when they are expected to be more independent. They have to adjust to new schedules with multiple classes, which require them to keep track of their own books and homework assignments. The thought of it alone can cause stress and even panic attacks. This is a good time to ask and listen to your child explain how they plan to utilize organization strategies to transition from elementary school to upper-grade levels.
Talk with your child about tools that might help them through their particular worries. For example, if they ’re frightened they might forget their locker code. Take a photo or text their combination to their cell. It may be a good idea to also jot down the combination with them and place it inside of a zipped compartment in their backpack. Buy a school planner to help your child organize their class schedules, and to keep up important due dates. Remind your child that the first few days might be rough as they adjust to the new schedule, but they will get used to it.
Talking About School Shootings
It would be impossible to ignore the tragic reality of mass shootings and how it might affect your child’s school anxiety. While you can’t helicopter around your kid when they’re at school, you can make a plan where you will meet if there is a school emergency; this will help them to feel safer and likely reduce some anxiety. In most situations and particularly during emergencies, you are likely your child’s best role model. Devise a support system and let your child see you use that support system; encourage your child to follow your example and to listen to their teacher. It may also be helpful if you have someone they can lean on when they are feeling anxious, whether it’s you, your spouse or another adult friend.
Consider carving out screen-free time each day when you talk about your day or even allow your child to come to the table with a list of things they want to discuss; this tip will help your child trust you and know they can come to you with any concerns. Practice mindfulness and relaxation strategies with your child, so you both have tools for dealing with your anxiety.
There is not one trick for how to help a child with anxiety about school, so, addressing your child’s unique needs and using a combination of strategies will help ease the distress.
Cara Batema is a musician, teacher, and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs, and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science, and health.