Returning to the classroom... Yes, it can cause anxiety!


An essay on how to help children with back-to-school anxiety by Clinical Nurse Specialist Christine Westland.


Whether it is the first day of kindergarten at the local band school or heading off to high school in a new community, going back to school is known to cause anxiety and apprehension for many young people. There are many and questions that come up for kids.

• Who will be my new teacher? 

• What if my new teacher is mean?

• Will my friends be in my classes?

•  Will people laugh at me or tease me or bully me?

• Are my clothes OK? 

• Who will I sit with at lunch?

• What if I miss the bus? 

• What if I can’t understand the new schoolwork?

• What if something bad happens to mom or dad while I am at school?

Acknowledge your child’s fears and discuss how they are feeling

Acknowledging a child's fears is a reasonable first step for parents to take. In recognizing the upcoming transition, parents should project a positive attitude about the upcoming changes and express clearly that they are confident in their children's abilities. Being a parent, grandparent or caregiver to a child with anxiety is not an easy task especially if you have suffered with the same fears in the past. So, take a deep breath and find a way to have some talking time with your child. It may help to go for a walk, do an activity such as baking or fishing or to take advantage of the time you spend tucking them into bed at night. 

Ask your child to tell you what thoughts they have when they think about going back to school. If their answer is a shrug of shoulders or “nothing” or “I don’t know,” don’t panic and be patient. Give your child some time to think about the question. If you still don’t get a response, try sharing how you felt when you were a kid or give them one or two suggestions. For example try asking, “Do you feel scared about going back to school”? or “Are you nervous about your new school”? Letting your child know that his/her fears are not only normal, but shared by most other kids is tremendously comforting. You can even point out that teachers also face worries about their new classes.

Plan ahead

Children benefit greatly by having the opportunity to visit their new schools, classrooms, playgrounds and eating areas. Meeting a fellow student in advance will give an extra boost to ease first-day jitters. For younger children, role-playing the first day of school, starting with acting out the morning routine, saying goodbye, and pretending to head off can be both fun and enlightening. Parents can even trade roles with their child and model healthy and relaxed behavior. When children return from their first day of school, parents should also encourage them to share their feelings and experiences, creating an open and supportive environment to carry throughout the school year.

Draw on culture

Include culture in your conversations with your child. Invite elders and other family members to share your community’s history through story telling. Encourage your child to join a drumming group, language classes or to participate in your community’s cultural activities. Music Therapists have used drumming for many years to help soothe anxiety. Lead by example and participate with your children in cultural and community activities.

Establish a routine

Another suggestion is to establish a routine. This may include some of the following ideas. Remember every family is a little different so pick what works for you, your child and your family.

• Make bedtime the same time every night

• Plan for healthy meals

• Limit screen time

• Make homework a routine

• Check in with your child often

• Involve family in your child’s life

When Anxiety Becomes a Problem…

If your child’s fears become so great that they begin to exhibit signs of anxiety which prevent them from feeling well and successfully attending school, it may be time to seek out other help. Signs that suggest a child may be experiencing a potentially excessive amount of stress include:

• Changes in appetite

• Inability to sleep

• Self-isolation

• Excessive crying

• Emotional outbursts and irritability

• Refusal to go to school

Know that as a parent you are not alone. Share your concerns with your community health nurse, family doctor, school counsellor and child’s teacher. Work together with the professionals to find solutions that are customized for your child. The most important wisdom I can share is to encourage your child. Forcing your child to go to school or threatening them with punishment will probably not be effective. Your child needs understanding, and together with professional and family members support, your child will learn how to cope with their anxiety.

Talk with teachers

Teachers can help by understanding that students with anxiety disorders may have difficulty completing their work. Some ideas on how working together with the teacher include: talking to teacher to learn about strategies that might work at home, asking the teacher to allow student extra time to do work and have the teacher check that their assignments are written down correctly. Also ask the teacher to modify assignments or alter workloads when necessary. 

And play!

Remember play is healthy for both parents and kids and families are meant to have fun together. Build in family fun time, game nights or outdoor activities. Practice your family’s spiritual beliefs. Don’t be afraid to hug your kids and your family members. Ask for hugs when you need some. Take care of yourselves and be gentle on yourself as a parent. Remember you are doing the best you can with the tools you have. When frustration builds and you need to release a little steam, go for a walk, smudge or do some yoga. Remove yourself from the situation because kids with anxiety can be volatile and hard to deal with occasionally. After you feel calm again go back and let your child know you are ready to help and listen. Parenting is a balancing act and your children are just learning about feelings and some days are just not smooth.

Enjoy September and the harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Admire the changing colors of the trees and the cooler misty mornings. Celebrate the earth and all she has to offer. Gratefulness is a wonderful component of balanced health and wellness.

The First Nations Information Governance Centre, First Nations Regional Health Survey (RHS) Phase 2 (2008/10) National Report on Adults, Youth and Children Living in First Nations Communities. 
(Ottawa: The First Nations Information Governance Centre, June 2012).