Back to School Anxiety

Anxious about going back to school?

Key points:

  • Back to school is common at the beginning of the school year
  • It affects children, advanced students, parents and teachers differently
  • There are lots of things you can do to reduce your anxiety
  • You can also seek clinical help for back to school anxiety and perfectionism to rapidly and effectively resolve them.

Back to school anxiety

It is ‘back to school’ time in Australia as students begin their 2021 academic year. It is a time of anxiety for many in the community – this year this anxiety has been further amplified by the 2020 COVID scenario.

In Melbourne, where there was a ‘hard lockdown’ ensuring kids were attending school remotely for almost half the year, there are several additional ‘layers’ to the anxiety that is the normal part of school beginning.

Who is affected?

Back to school anxiety affects four main groups, all a little differently:

  • Children, about to begin a new experience
  • Older students, facing into ‘important’ academic years
  • Parents of children off to school
  • Teachers returning to the classrooms.

Each of these groups faces a different basis for their anxiety, all stemming from the same essential concept.

Young children face the fear of not knowing what school will be like, how they will cope socially and often reflect the over-anxiousness of ‘helicopter’ style parents. The children don’t know what to be scared of, except to know that the anxiety they detect in their parents must make this a ‘scary’ and dangerous thing to do.

Older students face more advanced social fears (fitting in, being liked etc), as well as facing the fear of getting exam results and having to decide things about their futures. Perfectionism is a particularly powerful force in many of this group that creates massive anxiety and negative impacts.

Parents can have fear of letting go, and a vicarious fear that their child won’t be good enough or won’t be liked. There is often a fear that the beliefs they have about their child will somehow be unfounded (“my child is the next Einstein”).

Teachers have investment in their students and often have anxiety about doing a good enough job to help their students get the best outcomes. They also have the additional fear that the pressure that they were placed under to create whole programs remotely (as they did in 2020) might return.

Each of these fears are powerful and can generate massive anxiety. They are all based on similar concepts. To be anxious, the person has to:

  • Have uncertainty about what will happen.
  • Be focusing on that uncertainty, and in particular its negative qualities of that uncertainty.
  • Ruminate and overthink about the scenarios they imagine
  • Overestimate the risk and underestimate their ability to cope.

What can you do?

For any parent of a student going through school, presenting a confident and realistic view of school is important. The other side of anxiety is excitement – when we look forward to something by focusing on the positive attributes of the scenario. Inviting the child or student to consider what may be good, exciting or positive about the upcoming experience can be helpful in shifting the uncertainty as fear to excitement and opportunity.

Hide your own fears so that you dont project them on others. Anxious teachers or parents do not help anxious children. Your school experience will not be theirs, and the challenges that they face will be a great place for them to be stretched and learn new skills.

Before they go to school, focus on where they demonstrate competencies or skills and highlight them. “You showed a lot of effort in solving that puzzle”, “wow, that was a creative way of approaching that!”, “I like how you were particularly kind to your little sister today”. These build self-belief in capabilities, which they can then access in the uncertainties that will inevitably present.

As they start school, ask high quality questions – instead of “how was your day?”, ask a question that focuses on something positive or that reinforces their competence. “What was fun today?”, “What surprised you today?”, “What was the best thing you did today?” Each of these directs the thinking towards the positive aspects and the capabilities of the student to cope.

For perfectionist kids, don’t ‘editorialise’ any results. No score is good or bad. Instead, highlight the effort and skills they used to achieve whatever they did – these are far more important than any score, and shifting the pressure off the number can make all the difference. Highlighting skills and competencies allows the score to be the outcome of what they do, rather than the only thing that matters.

Parents and teachers who feel anxious about their personal situation should review the questions they are asking themselves that scare them so much. By focusing on the skills and their proven abilities to cope, then many of the fears that are imagined can be comfortably and realistically assessed.

If the anxiety continues or becomes difficult to manage, then get help. There are fast and effective ways to change how fears and anxieties are experienced in the clinic for both adults and children. Perfectionism is also something that can be resolved using clinical approaches. Contact me to find out how.