Originally posted here by Dr. Karin Price, pediatric psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital
Back to school season can be a time of high emotions – excitement about a new school year, sadness about saying goodbye to the freedoms of summer, anticipation of reuniting with friends, and worry about the unknown. Who will my teachers be? Will they be nice? Will I be in the same class as my friends? Who will I eat lunch with?
For some children, nervousness and worry about the new school year can become overwhelming, and parents often wonder what they can do to ensure a smooth transition back to school. Here are some tips and ideas:
- Prepare your child: Plan to attend meet the teacher events so your child can see his or her classroom, meet their teacher and get to know some classmates. If your child is entering a new school, or has struggled with significant shyness in past school years, you might want to plan a visit to the school grounds even before school starts. This can get your child comfortable with the school entry, layout of classrooms, location of important rooms (restroom, gymnasium, cafeteria, nurse’s office) and the playground. A private meeting with a shy child’s new teacher can often be arranged. Before your visit, check the school website for photos of important people (like your child’s new teacher) and practice asking and answering common questions they may be asked (What is your name? Who was your teacher last year? Did you have a good summer?). Even if your child does not want to visit the school or attend meet the teacher events, it is important to help them face their fears, rather than avoiding situations that make them uncomfortable.
- Normalize feelings of nervousness at the start of a new school year without dismissing your child’s concerns. Rather than saying, “There’s nothing to worry about,” or “Don’t worry! You’ll be fine,” try something like, “Lots of people get nervous at the start of a new school year” or “I know it’s a little scary, but I also know you can handle it.” You can also remind them of times in the past when they felt nervous and were successful anyway.
- Set reasonable goals and practice: For a shy child, simply saying “Hi,” to a new teacher may be a big enough accomplishment for the start of the school year. Break successes down into smaller pieces (e.g., say goodbye to parents at the school entry, walk to the classroom, unpack your backpack and sit in your seat, answer a question when the teacher asks) and then practice each step until your child feels comfortable.
- Talk about bravery: For shy or nervous children, entering new situations can be a huge challenge, and in facing their fears they are being very brave. Praise your child for his or her bravery and reflect on times your child has been brave in the past. For example, “I know you felt really nervous about riding the school bus today, but you did it anyway! That was super brave!” Avoid negative labels like “cry baby” or “scardey cat.”
- Review the day with a focus on positives: Most kids hate when parents ask, “How was your day?” Instead, try to focus on successes your child experienced at school that day. You might ask, “What did you like best at school today” or “What brave things did you do today?” If you want to identify areas for improvement, you might ask, “What can we do to make tomorrow an even better day?”
- Reward your child’s success: Rather than focusing on the outcome of situations (like getting a good grade on a test), focus on your child’s effort and attempts at being brave. You might tell them you are proud they chose to play with classmates during recess instead of sitting alone, or for raising their hand to answer a question even if they did not get the answer correct. For children who have a very difficult time engaging at school, you might need to introduce a reward system for brave behaviors (e.g., earning points or tickets for planning and then completing a brave behavior, like asking the teacher a question or delivering a note to the front office).
If you find your nervous or shy child continues to experience difficulties after the first few weeks of the school year, or if your child’s anxiety is causing problems with friends, school or family life, it may be time to call a behavioral health professional. The Behavioral and Developmental Sciences Referral Center at Texas Children’s Hospital can help you figure out how to best meet your child’s needs. Reach us at 832-822-1900.