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July 21, 2024

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Calming School Anxiety in Kids

More than mere nervous jitters, school anxiety can wreak havoc in a child's mind. Here's help.

Colin was starting fourth grade in a new school. At an orientation event, he became visibly unnerved as he struggled with the combination on a sticky locker. “He was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to open his locker,” says mom Lynn Brown. Most kids, even excited ones, experience a few butterflies as a new school year starts. The source of such unease is not always obvious to parents, but school anxiety in kids is worse than just butterflies.


Kids express anxiety in many ways, says Deb Cockerton, a child and youth behavioral counselor. Some are vocal and quite specific about their concerns, but more often it’s a child’s behavior that indicates his distress. Cockerton says, “The young child can become ‘clingy,’ not wanting to leave your side.” The tummy ache is a common symptom of stress in younger kids. Older children can suffer physical symptoms, such as headaches. They may eat more or less than usual when they’re feeling anxious, and they may also experience sleep interruptions and moodiness.


• Talk to your child about what worries her. Provide accurate information if she is misinformed. • Listen carefully and respond empathetically. Avoid saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine!” Focus on your child’s very real concerns. • Create safe space. The tween who resists face-to-face conversation may “open up” at unexpected moments. Look for natural opportunities to listen and check in during daily activities — riding in the car, doing a chore, playing a game. • List it. Help kids refocus on the positive by listing the things they’re excited about as well as the things that scare them. • Talk to veteran students. If your child is starting at a new school, make contact with kids who have been there a year or two. Fears of the unknown can be calmed with accurate kid-to-kid info. • Tour, meet and greet. Visit the school so your child can see the layout. Make introductions to teachers and other school personnel. • Brainstorm. Help your child build a repertoire of possible solutions to a problem. • Play “what if…” What would you do if you forgot your lunch? What would you do if you couldn’t find your homework? This technique gets even the youngest kids involved in problem solving. • Role play. Act out potentially uncomfortable interactions: What can you say if you want to be friends with someone? What can you do if someone is mean to you? • Get help. Open communication with school teachers, counselors and referrals will support your efforts to support your child.


Amy Peters is not looking forward to her daughter Katie’s first day of kindergarten. Katie’s 5 and ready to begin, but Amy knows things may not be easy at first. Katie doesn’t like spending event one night away from home. Separation anxiety’s a normal part of child development and it’s also normal for young school-age children to become tearful or clingy when starting a new school or returning after a break. But seeing children upset often results in guilty, stressed-out parents, and many can actually make the separation worse without realizing it. Try these tips: 1. Build familiarity. Look for ways to weave your child’s school experiences into her life. Attend back-to-school kick-offs, and help her make new acquaintances. 2. Tell your child what to expect. Let her know where you’ll be while you’re away and when you’ll be back. Make sure she meets her new teacher(s) and talk her through a day at school. 3. Don’t sneak away when you bring her on the first day. Be positive and remind your child when you’ll be back, and that you’ll have to go to the store together or something she’s familiar with. 4. Don’t prolong goodbye. Aim to establish a comfortable routine with a cheerful hug, kiss and goodbye, then head out. If you’re worried, e-mail the teacher to check on your child. 5. Return on time. When you come back when you say you will, your child will begin to understand that you’ll always return. 6. Stay calm. Stay calm and upbeat at both drop-off and pick-up times. 7. Be patient. Most kids will get better about separation with time. If your child continues to be excessively fearful of being separated from you, talk to your pediatrician.

About the Author

Ashley Talmadge

Ashley Talmadge is a freelance writer and mother of two boys. She enjoys writing about parenthood.