School can bring up a lot of change and a lot of feelings about the change in many families, and for sensitive or anxious children, starting school can feel a momentous challenge. There is much you can do to support them through this difficult time. These 10 ideas will help children overcome their fears.
Is Your Child Feeling Unsettled About School? Look for “Secret” Signs of Tension
If your child could walk up to you, wait for you to stop whatever task has you busy, and say, “I’d like to talk about this school thing. I’m feeling a little uncertain about what to expect. I’m not sure I’m ready,” he sure would.
But even the most articulate children have trouble being so straightforward.
Instead, and in order to alert us to their nagging fears, children try to show us in other ways. The Gottman Institute calls these signals “attention bids.” Every child is different, but here’s what you might see.
- Some children may become very clingy
- There may be more tears, more often
- Usual levels of whining might suddenly rise
- Aggressive behaviors including rage, kicking, hitting and biting
- Your child might get very demanding about how he or she wants things to be done. If you can never cut that piece of toast “just right,” you may be hot on the trail of your child’s possible tension and nervousness.
These bids for connection are driven by a child’s fears, which he or she is unable to otherwise express, and there are various ways to answer them supportively. When we see them as signals, and respond to them with love and support a child will find a way to work through them and drain the tension.
The 10 steps we list in this post give plenty of opportunities for a child to express the feelings they have in the lead-up to school.
10 Ways to Help Children Who Feel Anxious About Starting School
1. Up The Sense of Security at Home
Around a week before school starts, get set to spend around 10 minutes a day (if you can) with your attention solely on your child and what he or she wants to play. We call this Special Time at Hand in Hand and it works wonders for helping build that added security, through your attention. You can find out more about how to run Special Time and get a handy checklist here.
2. Play Around the Drama
The second is to up play. PLAY LOTS! Like Special Time, let your child take the lead. If he or she really needs you to play gentle, follow that direction, if a child wants to play hard, do your best to dive in! Rough and tumble games, like pillow fights, burrito rolls, and tag work well to help expel built up stress and tension through physical touch, laughter and – fairly often – tears, which can seem surprising when you are having good fun.
3. Embrace Any Feelings Your Child Shows
When these tears spill it’s similar to when we have had a really tough day and then someone says something lovely and the tears just fall. The relief we feel knowing that we are still loved and the world is ok is the same for our children too!
Don’t be surprised if a child appears to find reasons to cry during play.
Very often a child will use a small knock or heavy landing as a good excuse to have a good emotional clear out through cry. In those times lean in and listen. You don’t need to say much, just be there and say something occasionally, like, “I know it’s hard,” or “You’re safe here.” Sometimes this will bring on more tears, again that’s a good thing. Your child is taking this time to let those fears and worries go.
You can learn more about the science of why this listening strategy works in The Science Behind the Hand in Hand Parenting Tool of Staylistening
4. Sneak in Extra Kisses and Surprise Snuggles.
Reframe this time before school as an extra special time to be close to your child, and do double-duty strengthening their sense of confidence, connection, and self-worth.
As this article outlines, 80% of adults say they did not feel loved by their parents. We can change that for our children. When we look for opportunities to “catch” them being their adorable selves, and when we notice them and delight in their special traits.
So, when they are playing, sneak up and plant a surprise kiss on their soft cheek. Spend an extra five minutes in the day cuddled up with a book, or stay a few minutes longer with them after lights out. These efforts fill a child’s cup and soothe their anxiousness.
5. Listen To Your Feelings Too
You may have to go through many rounds of Special Time, play, and listening to crying to give a child all the good opportunities he or she needs to offload fears and worries about starting school. That can be emotionally and physically tiring for us parents. Make sure you have someone to listen to you and your feelings about the situation. Think about joining our Parents Support Facebook Group, where the parents and moderators do a great job offering community and support in the tough times.
6. Bring Up the Subject of School Often
Do keep mentioning school – you might even like to keep a calendar and check the days off until the first day – and find excuses to bring up the topic. Have fun picking out a few special things your children might need and then stop for ice-cream, try out the route to school, and visit, even if the school gates are still shut for the holidays.
These actions not only bring about familiarity but also give lots of room for a child to express how he or she feels about school. Remember, this may look like more crying, whining or lots of requests to play and be close, or it may come through defiant statements, like these:
- “I don’t want to go to school.”
- “I won’t go.”
- “School sucks and I hate it.”
- “I’m never going to go.”
7. Be A True Feelings Researcher
Despite the way it sounds to us, your child is doing good things by bringing these concerns up with the people he feels safest with – you! Strong sentences like these display that a child has lots of feelings waiting to be heard. Most of us were brought up to console, find solutions and fix when we hear words like these. We might say:
- “Oh! It won’t be that bad.”
- “You’ll love it once you start.”
- “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
Did this help your fear any?
For many, it felt like our big, scary, intense worries were being brushed under the carpet. Yet, since we heard these things as children, it’s natural that we find ourselves saying similar. To change the cycle, try being open to the conversation. Put yourself in the role of a researcher, seeking the true feelings behind the statements:
- Try lightly saying, “Oh yes? You hate school? That must feel hard.”
- Or “I found school tough too. What do you dislike the most?”
- Or wonder out loud with your child. “I wonder why you feel that?” “I wonder how we can get past that?”
Sometimes kids can be very surprising and their own best solution-finders when communication is safe and warm. Your child might tell you. “It could be ok if you promise you’ll be there when I go.” Or “Maybe if I take my special pencil I’ll feel better.”
If not, keep close and keep wondering until your child breaks the mood. (Often with something very unexpected, like, “Let’s play cars!”)
8. Respond Your Child’s Truth-Radar
Kids have a great, well-attuned truth radar, and can sniff out any hints of avoidance, so it helps to be as honest as possible when they ask tough questions – whether that’s “Mom, will you stay in class with me all day?” or “Why does baby brother get to stay home with you?”
Understandably, sometimes we want to run as fast as we can from these big questions, fearful ourselves about bringing on upsets or perhaps making an already scary situation seem even scarier.
This can be distracting for a child.
His truth radar senses something not quite right. He may question your validity, or even the validity of his own feelings when you tell him something that avoids the truth.
Move in close, make eye contact, and keep your tone light. “I will be there at drop-off and pick-up, but I can’t stay in class all the time.” Or, “Yes, baby brother is too young to be in school. He’ll stay back until he’s your age, just like you have. What do you think about that?”
If this brings on cries of upset or defiance, you can move in close and acknowledge that this time is hard on your child.
9. Build School-Time Habits Ahead of School Time
If school means earlier wake-up times, more hurrying and other changes in your routine you might like to practice them ahead of time. They help you figure out where there may be sticky points. Does it take your child longer than you thought to change? Is breakfast going to be a challenge? This is a chance before the school day rush kicks in for real to prepare, adjust and rework mornings to be more like you’d like them.
10. Make a Plan for Staying Connected on School Days
Whether it’s a little note in a lunchbox, a keepsake treasure in a pocket, a morning joke, or a special drop-off routine, establishing some personal ways to connect and keep connections high do a lot to help children feel more secure when they are away from you.
Send Your Child To School Feeling Less Anxious and More Confident
The 10 ideas here work in tandem, some to up warmth and security that lets a child feel safe enough to show his feelings, and others to support and nurture when a child expresses them. Using them helps a child work through his emotions and drain the tension he or she holds about starting school and leads to new resilience and confidence.
Do you have a child who feels anxious about school starting? What behaviors are you seeing? Or have you found good solutions to supporting your child through the transition? We’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.
You can find more about how children’s emotions work in this post Starting School Part 1; How to Pack the Backpack.
Get help for separation anxiety at the school-gates and drop-off in How Staylistening at Drop-Off Can Relieve Separation Anxiety
Is your child in a bad mood after school? Read Affection Play—A Powerful Antidote to the After-School Blahs