The “Back To School Anxiety Syndrome”

Over the years, we’ve seen different reactions from the kids when it comes to schools reopening after the summer holidays. A few years back, Pecan had bouts of what he described as “an icky feeling”, “a strange feeling in the stomach”. He would down half a cup of milk with great difficulty only to throw it all up a few minutes later. He would not eat anything before he left for school and would not finish his snack / lunch either. The family physician said there was nothing physical that was setting these reactions off in him. Upon some extensive research, we realized that these were only too common among children. Let’s call it “The Back-to-School Anxiety Syndrome”.

The "Back To School Anxiety Syndrome"

It is very common for us, as adults, to assume that stress is something adults go through. It does not occur to us as easily that stress is something that manifests itself in children too – sometimes to an extent where it starts to manifest itself physically too.

Yet again, when it comes to kids, parents usually tend to associate stress with children starting school / kindergarten or children changing schools and attending new ones and other such reasons. Research however, shows that even with children attending the same schools with the same teachers and the same surroundings, stress is very much real and that it happens more frequently than we realize or admit.

What is important is to realize and accept that “back to school anxiety” does not stop at kindergarten or the first day of primary school. In many children, it persists year after year. They have their fears, their angsts, their apprehensions regarding the start of yet another school year and it is indeed cause for genuine concern.

Upon talking to Pecan about what was bringing about these “icky stomach” episodes, it slowly became clear that he was stressing himself out about the additional responsibilities that need to be handled with every passing year of school and the additional extra-curricular activities that he needs to deal with and such. Yet again, this has nothing to do with the child’s actual ability to cope but like the idiom goes “it’s all in the head”. But what we, as parents, need to realize and respect that their fears and their stress is very much real.

We’ve been through these “kids getting stressed up around school re-opening” quite a few times and now, as a professional in the field of education, I see varying shades of the same situation playing out at the beginning of every school year. It almost seems like a rite of passage, truth be told :).

Here are a few things that have helped a great deal through the years:

Irrespective of whether the child is starting kindergarten or primary school or secondary school, it always helps to talk to the kids about it. Talking it out with parents gives children the confidence that they have a “go to” anytime they need to talk about the issues or problems that they face or may face at school. This, in itself, is a huge stress alleviating factor.

Reassuring your child helps big time. Reassure them that they are not the only ones anxious about starting school. There are many others in the same boat.

With both our children, we have found that talking about our own personal experiences helped them cope with their “back to school anxiety episodes”. There have been many instances (and I’m sure there will be quite a few in the future too) wherein my talking to them about my personal experiences when I was a school going child and how I coped with those, has helped calm them and has helped them rationalize.

With children who are scheduled to start kindergarten, it is always a good idea to take the child over to school a couple of times and show him/her what the place looks like and the activities they have at kindergarten etc. Many kindergartens are accommodating when it comes to this. In fact, it has become quite the norm for kindergartens and primary schools to hold Open Days at school, when parents and children are free to walk around and explore what the school has to offer.

With little children, especially kindergartners and lower primary school kids, take them shopping and let them choose their own water bottles or their own lunch boxes. It is a little thing, but it goes a long way in giving them a feeling of control over their own school lives. I remember, with Macadamia, it was a little pink Hello Kitty plate that she held on to until she finished kindergarten and with Pecan it was a small blue cup that he used to carry to school every day – a blue cup with Thomas the Tank Engine on it.

A week or so before school is scheduled to open, we always (even now) start getting the kids to bed early – much earlier than their vacation bedtimes. This helps their bodies adjust to the new routine that is about to come their way. While this may seem like a very small, unimportant thing, it helps in a major way. A well-rested child would be much less prone to tantrums than a sleepy child who has not had enough sleep. A child who has had enough sleep would cope with activities and lessons in school much better than children who have not had enough sleep. This goes a long way in helping their self-esteem and their levels of self-confidence.

School mornings are always hectic, are they not? At our place, there have been times when school mornings have bordered on “totally insane”. Especially so, at the beginning of the school year. While this is normal, what it does do, to a great extent, is exacerbate anxiety in children. Earlier, we used to help the kids organize their school bags but now that they are grown up enough, we make sure they get their bags organized a couple of days before schools are to reopen.

Another thing still helps is planning their snack /lunch menus a few days before school starts, is a huge stress-buster. What it also does is makes them aware of a mental countdown of sorts and this, in effect, helps them get back into the “back to school” routine.

All said and done, “going back to school” evokes a wide range of emotions in both, parents and children. I remember the times when I used to be a stay-at-home mom. I used to feel gloom descending on me a few days before the kids’ schools reopened. I guess the most important thing is to acknowledge the presence of those feelings and work on them rather than repress or deny that they exist. They do, for the most part and it is perfectly normal.

Having those communication channels open with the kids goes a long way in alleviating stress during those first few days back at school and in effect, helps children cope with their successes and setbacks at school, thereby setting the basis for a healthy, fulfilling relationship between parents and children.

Gauri Venkitaraman dons many hats – a wife, a  mom, a teacher and many more. Working as a full time English teacher in HongKong, Gauri also raises and nurtures two terrors, affectionately known as The Nutty Siblings a.k.a Macadamia, a pre-teen and Pecan, the ten year old who behaves like he is fifteen. Gauri’s family means the world to her. Life is a lively roller coaster ride and we, as a family, aim to enjoy the ride together. http://tiny-tidbits.blogspot.hk/ is where Gauri pens down her thoughts and musings, in an attempt to preserve memories for posterity.

  • Subramanian Raman

    Good analysis

  • My son will be going to play-school in a few months time, and I am skipping heart-beats already. Thank you for writing this. Sometimes, it takes another to understand what lies within your own self. Very informative, very helpful and will be printed and pasted on my wall, real soon! 🙂

  • Good luck, Sakshi :-).