For many children, heading off to class with brand-new running shoes and a backpack filled with notebooks and sharpened pencils can be exciting. But for others tummy troubles or sleepless nights begin as the calendar flips to September.
They might be encountering new teachers, a new school building and they could be in a situation where they’ll have to make new friends. Going to school in the fall can be a time of anxiety.
“You’ve got many fearful students in September,” said Robin Bright, a professor of education at the University of Lethbridge.
Younger children may feel anxious about a new teacher and ask themselves, “Will the teacher like me?” said Bright.
But for older kids, she said, the stresses are more diverse.
Students may be concerned about where to catch the school bus. Or they fear they may not be able to sort out new schedules or new lockers. And at the top of the worry list: Will any of my friends be in my class?
Play dates, judo lessons, music camps and Facebook might fill the summer, and many children would appear to have plenty of social engagements and friends.
But some experts say none of those get-togethers can replace daily, face-to-face interactions.
“It is very important to nurture relations within their own school community,” said Ester Cole, a psychologist who works with children and adolescents in Toronto.
She stresses that children need to have good relationships with the peers they meet daily during recess or in the cafeteria, adding that this teaches children about community, how to negotiate and co-operate.
“Parents can be excellent facilitators of school contacts by making sure their children know they are welcome to invite peers over, either before school begins or during the first couple of weeks,” she said.
Even something as seemingly simple as an agenda — the notebook-sized calendar handed to students during the first week of school — can cause problems.
“The agenda came into play to help alleviate stress — to record things they might not remember,” said Bright. “The intent is to organize and help manage their lives.”
“But (the agenda) can have the opposite effect. It can be just one more thing to do, forget or lose.”
More extreme reactions to a new school year may result if it is just one of many changes at the end of a summer.
For example, the family may have moved into a new home. There may be a new addition to the family, such as a baby. Or perhaps there was a death in the family.
Any one of these situations can make going to school all the more worrisome.
Bright said the best way to deal with back-to-school stress is to talk about any fears.
It may be as simple as parents taking time in the weeks before school starts to walk the route to school with their child and spend a few minutes in the school yard to help familiarize kids with what they will be seeing in their new daily routine.
Kids Help Phone, a youth counselling service for those aged five to 20, offers some advice to parents trying to help their kids deal with heading off to school in the fall at www.kidshelpphone.ca.
Other online resources include www.kidshavestresstoo.org, a site offered by the Psychology Foundation of Canada.
Kids Help Phone has seen an increase in online activity in the past five years. This may indicate that the way kids are reaching out for help is shifting; if they are uncomfortable talking to parents, they may be trying to get help in other ways. In fact, Cole said many parents talk about the transition to school with their kids.
But while some parents may be telling their children how proud they feel, the parents themselves may be stressed about their little ones starting a new class.
“Children look to their parents for reassurance. However, when they see worry, it doesn’t help them calm down,” said Cole, chair of the Parenting for Life program with the Psychology Foundation of Canada.
One way to minimize pre-school jitters — for both students and parents — is to work in some down time.
“Many families tend to maximize summer holidays,” she said. “Before school starts it is important to be mindful of the cost/benefit of extending the holiday to the time right before school begins.”
“This is especially true with very young children and those prone to worry.” Bright added that parents shouldn’t discount the importance of good habits in the days leading up to the first day of school.
“Staying healthy — getting enough sleep, exercise and good food — makes a huge difference.”