- Alex's Advice
- School Smarts
This is it. Today is the day you’ve been waiting for.
No, it’s not a major holiday, or the start of an amazing vacation. Even better: today is the day your child is finally going back to school after months of being quarantined at home.
Yes, your child’s school is allowed to open, and you are confident that they can safely return because of the school’s rigorous social distancing and health and safety protocols. You can now return to your work or the life you enjoyed before you were forced to become your child’s teacher/friend/babysitter/24-7 support-system.
So you drive your child to school, envisioning all of the amazing instruction, socialization, structure, and activities that they will once again be able to enjoy. And as you pull up the curb and pop open your door …
Your child panics. Refuses to get out of the car. Cries. Grabs hold of you. Begs you to take them home.
There go your visions of first-day-of-school bliss.
If your child suffered from school anxiety prior to the pandemic shutdown, chances are high that this extended school break exacerbated the issue. Yet even if your child never experienced school avoidance before, the uncertainty of the past few months and the dire news cycle to which they’ve been exposed may have created new anxious feelings.
While school anxiety and avoidance are very common, especially in children with complex challenges and learning differences, it can be both frustrating and emotional to help a child overcome these fears.
As a parent, what are you to do? How do you help a child with school anxiety successfully return to school? Here are a few simple tips:
#1: Try gradual exposure.
One of the best ways to treat anxiety in children is to gradually expose them to the source of the anxiety. For school anxiety, this may mean bringing your child to school before- or after-hours to tour the building.
If this is too big of a step, start with a virtual tour. Look at the map of the school together and walk your child through their day, where they will spend their time, and how they will navigate the space. You may need to do these practice runs a few times before your child is comfortable.
#2: Read a Social Story.
Younger students may benefit from one of Carol Grey’s Social Stories, social learning tools that help provide information on a specific topic in a meaningful way. These are research-proven interventions for alleviating anxiety.
Select a story, and read it to your child every day for the two weeks before school begins. This way, when your child is exposed to the stimulus discussed in the story, they will not be as anxious in real life.
#3: Attend a favorite class or activity.
Allowing your child to start school by attending only their most preferred class, or even half of a class, is a good way to ease back into the school day. Start small and slowly increase the amount of time your child spends in school -- perhaps five minutes at a time. Don’t try to negotiate with your child to keep them in school longer, as that can make anxiety worse.
#4: Confirm the source.
As I discussed in a recent podcast, anxiety is an inappropriate reaction when fear is not warranted. However, as a parent, you must ensure that there is nothing at school that your child is afraid of for a legitimate reason. No child would want to return to a place where they are being bullied, assaulted, or worse.
#5: Ask your child for their input.
Clinical child psychologist Ross Greene often warns parents about using adult-imposed solutions when kids are the best source of solutions to their difficulties. Ask your child why they are having trouble attending school and what will help. You may be surprised at how good they are at solving their own problems when partnered with a supportive adult. If you would like help having these conversations, Greene’s parent trainings are excellent.
#6: Seek help.
If the situation does not improve, talk to your child’s pediatrician, and seek the help of a psychologist, psychiatrist, or developmental pediatrician.
These are only a few ways that you can help ease your child’s school anxiety in our post-shutdown world. How have you helped your child transition back to school this year? Let us know in the comments below, or join the conversation on Facebook.