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Overcoming back-to-school nerves

By Atom | Sep 7, 2023, 9:10 AM

Happy schoolgirl taking books from her smiling mother in a bright, natural setting

As the new school year approaches, it's natural for children to feel a mix of excitement and nervousness. Stepping up into the next year group can mean greater expectations and an increased workload. And if your child is starting a new school, some back-to-school anxiety is expected from a new routine, a different environment, and meeting a new teacher and classmates.

Keep reading for our top tips to tackle back-to-school nerves so that your child starts the school year feeling confident and prepared.

They're nervous about the workload

Going up into the next year group is a rite of passage for many children, but it does mean more homework and a greater sense of responsibility.

If your child is worried about working at a more advanced level, they may be struggling with a fixed mindset. For instance, your child might believe that if they find maths too difficult, they'll never be good at it. Talk to them about the importance of a growth mindset and help them understand that skills and intelligence can be developed over time. Homework, although sometimes tedious, is a great way to build new skills!

Your child may also be worried about the quantity of homework they're going to get. It might help to create a study timetable together to help them manage the new workload.

Break down study times into bitesize chunks to help them stay engaged and focused. Up to 25 minutes is best for 8-year-olds, and up to 30 minutes for 10-year-olds. And don't forget to build in lots of time for rest and play!

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They're moving to a new school

Your child might have lots of anxious feelings if they're starting at a new school this September.

If possible, try to book a visit before school starts so that they can get familiar with the new school environment in advance. Ask for a tour of the site so that they can see their new classroom, and see if you can arrange an introductory meeting with your child's teacher. This can help alleviate some of the anxiety your child might be feeling about the unknown.

Don't forget to travel the route together if your child is going to commute using the school bus or public transport. Walk to the bus stop/train station together, show them how to pay the fare and how to read the timetable, and find out who they can speak to if they have any problems.

They're daunted by the routine

After the long summer holidays, returning to a routine can feel overwhelming. Gradually easing into a routine can give your child a sense of stability and security, as they'll know what to expect when school starts again.

Here are a few tips to help gently re-establish a routine before school starts:

  • Organise your child's study space to help make it an appealing place to work. Invite your child with you to shop for new school supplies and create a space that they’ll want to study in.

  • Getting enough sleep is essential! Start getting into a back-to-school sleep routine a few weeks before the year begins to help them adjust to the earlier bedtime and wake-up time.

  • Introduce a consistent morning routine. This might mean waking up, getting dressed, and having breakfast at the same time every day. When the first day of school rolls around, your child will be used to the routine and will be less likely to fight it.

Mother serving breakfast to her two schoolchildren

Encourage your child to write or draw a timetable for their weekly activities. Make sure they build in plenty of time for fun and social activities as well as study time! You can download a blank schedule here for your child to fill in:

A blank schedule template for your child to fill in their daily routine

Download template

They're worried about friendships

Is your child worried about catching up with peers they haven’t seen in weeks? See if you can arrange a playdate with other children in their class a few days before term starts. Playdates are a great way for children to build social skills away from the pressures of school.

If your child is shy, you might want to host a playdate at home where they feel more comfortable. While some supervision may be needed depending on your child’s age, try not to get too involved and let the situation unfold naturally. If the other child’s parents are available, why not invite them to join you? You’ll have the opportunity to build new friendships yourself while modelling good social etiquette to your child.

If they’re starting a new school and they're worried about making friends, reach out to the school to see what social opportunities are available. There may be parent groups – such as on WhatsApp or Facebook – that you can join to meet other families in your child’s year. You might also want to find out what lunchtime and after-school clubs are available. Clubs can be a great way for your child to meet new friends who share the same interests.

When to seek more help

Most children are resilient and will adapt to the changes of a new school year within the first few weeks. However, there are certain signs that might indicate your child needs more support:

  • Physical symptoms: if your child often complains of a headache, stomach ache or another physical symptom without a clear medical cause – particularly in the morning before school.

  • Sleep disturbances: if you notice a significant change in your child’s sleep patterns, such as taking a long time to fall asleep or waking up lots during the night.

  • Avoidance behaviours: if your child consistently tries to avoid going to school and often asks to stay at home, or seems distressed at the school drop off.

  • Emotional distress: look out for signs of excessive worry, fear, irritability, or mood swings related to going back to school.

  • Academic decline: if your child’s performance suddenly drops, they’re finding it hard to concentrate, or they appear to be struggling with their classwork more than usual.

If you notice any of these signs or if your child’s anxiety is having a significant impact on their daily functioning, speak to your child’s GP. They will assess your child’s wellbeing and decide whether they might benefit from seeing a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or counsellor. They will be able to provide guidance and strategies to help your child manage their anxiety.

The British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP) has a helpful directory of registered child psychologists. You may wish to use this to find therapists who specialise in children in your area.

Remember that every child is unique. If you have any concerns about your child’s wellbeing or a specific situation, it’s always best to talk with a professional who can offer tailored advice and support.

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