With the start of the new school year inching closer each day, many of us – students, parents, educators and administrators alike – are often left wondering, “Where did the summer go?” But for others, the start of the school year brings much stronger emotions. Jason Culp, our Head of Upper School, offers some advice for helping children cope with back-to-school anxiety.
I remember approaching my seventh grade year with nothing but anxiety and dread.
I had always been something of an anxious kid, but the prospect of middle school had alarms of all kinds going off in my head: What if I don’t make friends? What if I cannot keep up with the workload? What if I get in trouble?
On and on it went, all summer long, right into the new school year. My mom tried her best to reassure me that there was really nothing to fear, but I was having none of it. Middle school, I had decided, was not for me.
Looking back now, I can smile and know that the anxiety of that year did not plague me through the rest of middle school or into high school. I eventually overcame my fears, finished seventh grade and moved forward in school. However, I have never really forgotten what it felt like to be so afraid of school that some days I flatly refused to go at all.
Each year, as the “Back-To-School” ads begin to flood TV and radio and fill my mailbox, I think about the kids who are not looking forward to new school supplies and a fresh start. While I am hopeful that most, if not all, of our Lawrence Lions are looking forward to an exciting and positive year ahead, I recognize that some – particularly those who are making big transitions – may be a little less than excited at the prospect.
For some – like our rising seventh graders – it means coming from the small, intimate environment of our Lower School into a much larger Upper School with many more classmates. In other cases, this year’s transition means a new grade level and new teachers. And while that may not seem like a major transition, new teachers can often mean big changes.
For still others, the change is huge – coming from another school in a far-away community to Lawrence. This, of course, means everything is new; from what to wear, how to get home from school, to everything in between; including making new friends.
Changes, whatever their size, can breed anxiety and tension in even the most resilient and confident child. For those who have struggled in school in the past, the thought of a new school year can surface old fears and make the transition to the first day of school quite difficult.
In the hope of easing this year’s transition, here are some tips to consider:
- Visit the campus – more than once, if needed. In most schools, including Lawrence, administrative and office staff are back in the office and working. As such, making an appointment to tour the school, visit classrooms and check out the locker situation is often an easy arrangement. Frequently, the simple act of walking through an unfamiliar space when you have time to really look and explore can be a huge stress reliever. For students who fear the unknown, there is nothing more helpful than making their new school feel like a known entity through a visit during the relative quiet of an early August day.
- Attend as many back-to-school events as possible (and bring your child when appropriate). Lawrence School, like most schools, has orientation programs, sports nights and other programs where parents and students can meet teachers and other staff. While sometimes it seems there might be better ways to spend the last minutes of summer, the best thing for an anxious child is exposure to the new environment in a social, low-anxiety situation. Furthermore, let teachers and staff know that your child is feeling anxious. Most school staff will go well out of their way to help an anxious child feel comfortable and safe.
- Let the questions fly! If you have questions about the new school setting, or your child is asking questions you can’t answer, encourage the child to e-mail a contact person at the school and ask their questions. Not sure who to contact? Call the school office and ask the administrative assistant. If the child is asking the questions and receiving answers, he or she is building a connection to school staff that will likely carry them through even the most anxiety-ridden first day.
- Conduct a Dress Rehearsal. Never has a play been produced when there was not a dress rehearsal the night before, ensuring that everything is ready for the big day. So, conduct your own dress rehearsal. Set the alarms, try on the new clothes and shoes, pack the backpack, then time the drive to school. Time it right, and you can stop for lunch on the way home. Let your child see that everything is planned and organized and that you’re ready for any contingency.
- Remind your child that others may be anxious as well. The important message here is helping your child understand that some level of anxiety about a new school year is to be expected. Additionally, it is reassuring for kids to hear that there may be other students who are anxious as well and what they are experiencing is not “weird” or a problem. An anxious child will likely assume that everyone else is adjusting well and feeling excited about the year ahead. Knowing that their friends may be anxious as well can normalize the experience.
Certainly, if you feel your child’s anxiety is beyond what is reasonable for the back to school season, consult with school personnel, your child’s pediatrician or a professional counselor.
Best wishes for an exciting and low-anxiety transition back to school. We are so looking forward to seeing the campus come alive in the next few weeks!
Jason Culp is the Head of Upper School at Lawrence and has been a member of the school’s community since 2002. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Baldwin-Wallace College and a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling from Capella University. Jason is licensed as a Professional Counselor (PC) with the State of Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. He welcomes all comments and questions, which can be directed to him directly at email@example.com.