CHERRY HILL, N.J. — The first day of school is approaching and Melissa Langford knows some families are dreading its arrival. Not because warm summer days filled with swimming and barbecues are dwindling, but because school-related anxieties begin to surface — and she can empathize.
Langford’s son, Tim, 15, and getting ready to enter ninth grade, has been struggling with his school fears since third grade.
“It is very difficult,” says Langford, director of transitional educational services at First Children Services in Cherry Hill. “My husband and I would take Tim to elementary school kicking and screaming. It was like trying to pry a frog off the wall just to get him out of the house. And then once he got to school, he would start throwing up. I’d feel like a bad parent and I was only trying to do what was best for him.”
Langford, who has two other children, Will, 26 and Austin, 21, says Tim’s anxiety became so bad she home schooled him for a year. Tim, who is on the autism spectrum, began Transitions at First Children Services eight months ago, and Langford has seen a dramatic improvement. The program, says Langford, concentrates on giving children with school anxiety a school-like environment and helps them transition back to their local school.
“Tim is having more conversations with us, is making friends and is connecting with his teachers,” says Langford. “He even brings up transitioning back to his local high school to me, so we are going to slowly begin that this school year.”
Alison Block, a psychologist in Oceanport, Monmouth County, who works with children coping with anxiety, says there are many reasons anxiety occurs and that it can happen at any age. She has heard fears about teachers, lockers, riding a bus, Mom remembering to pick them up after school, lunch time, who to play with at recess and many more.
Block says childhood anxiety has been increasing over the years due to many factors.
“Older kids on social media post happy pictures on Instagram or Facebook and making everything look perfect and wonderful in their lives,” says Block. “Kids that don’t have perfect lives think something is wrong with them. Kids don’t have the same perception as adults.”
Sports have become more competitive and less about fun for children, and academic pressure is starting at a younger age, too, says Block.
“I have middle schoolers tell me they are worried about getting into certain colleges,” says Block.
Parents can help their children deal with their fears by listening to their kids concerns and acknowledging their feelings, says Block. By asking open-ended questions and having meaningful conversations, parents may be able to find the root of their children’s worries. If a parent feels they are not helping their child or the anxiety worsens, seek out a professional.
“School refusal is a big, red flag that a child may need to talk to a professional,” says Block. “Other signs include withdrawing from friends, grade changes and sleep patterns.”
Headaches, stomach aches and nausea also can be signs that a child is suffering from school-related anxiety, says Dr. David Rosenberg, pediatrician and founder of Pediatric Associates in Vineland. He has been practicing in Vineland for 55 years.
“Transitions are hard for children and adults,” says Rosenberg. “Going from grade school to middle school to high school is a big deal. It’s a bigger school, harder classes and new people. It’s very hard to make these changes.”
Rosenberg says encouraging activities and hobbies, whether it be dance, drum lessons, gymnastics, swimming, etc., can be beneficial when it comes to reducing a child’s worry because activities instill confidence, make kids feel good about themselves and help them to relax.
Most important, parents need to stay positive about school and talk to their children.
“Tell kids they are going to learn to draw and write, sing songs and have play dates if they go to school,” he says. “Help them see the reality that school brings, which is growing from a happy child to a happy and successful adult.”
Experts share 12 ways parents can help alleviate their child’s school worries:
• Make transitions early. “Expose kids early to changes so they can adapt better during transitions,” says Rosenberg. “It’s much easier for children who have been making gradual changes at young ages to go to school. Preschool is a good way to initiate change and gets children used to school. If they are going directly to kindergarten, parents can frequently talk about school and have the kids meet the teacher prior to the first day.”
• Have a discussion. “Parents often try to reassure their children, but sometimes these reassurances sound empty,” says Block. “Saying ‘it’s going to be fine’ isn’t going to help a nervous child. When they begin to worry, use it as an opportunity to have more dialogue and find out what is making them anxious. The more information you have the better job you can do to make a child more comfortable with school.”
• Involve children in activities. Langford says parents can help reduce school stress by getting their children involved with activities or events prior to school. These activities, such as sports, music lessons or clubs, will help them build confidence and make friends. “It’s much easier to walk into school on the first day with someone by your side then walking in alone,” she says. “It takes some of the pressure off.”
• Stay positive. “Parents need to be positive,” says Rosenberg. “Emphasize the positives of school. Let kids know how much fun school will be and all the new friends they will meet. If a child has an older sibling in school, have the sibling talk to the child about recess and all the fun that is had during the school day. If parents express fear or anxiety their children will pick up on this and become afraid and nervous.”
• Get enough sleep. Block says parents can help calm their children by encouraging kids to get plenty of sleep and getting them back on a school schedule well before the start of school. “Going back to school is a transition time, and transitions are when we see anxiety in children,” she says. “They are going from unstructured summer time to a very structured school time. Starting to get kids back in the school routine early helps reduce anxiety.”
• Visit the school. “Take the kids to visit the school in the summer,” says Langford. “Drive around the parking lot, walk through the halls, test out the lockers. This trip will remove many of the ‘I don’t know what to expect’ fears a student may have.”
• Limit video games. Rosenberg says video games should be a reward, not a regular part of life. “If children just sit around and play video games the first five years of life, why would they want to go to school?” he says. “Video games impacts children’s ability to communicate because they are not outside riding bikes with their friends and socializing. Video games also desensitize kids to violence and have a profound impact on school refusal and increased fear.”
• Pack mementos. “Put a picture of Mom and Dad in a child’s notebook or pack your kids a note in their lunch boxes,” says Block. “These things help children feel more comfortable at school. Especially for those coping with separation anxiety.”
• Talk to the school guidance counselor. Meet with the school guidance counselor, says Langford. This visit will make parents and kids more relaxed about school. “Keep the child’s anxiety in the open with the school guidance counselor,” she says. “It makes the situation easier for the child and the counselor will know to check in on the student more often.”
• Make them go to school. If a child does start crying and refusing school, it is important to insist he or she still go, says Rosenberg. “Don’t give in and keep kids home because it is encouraging them to skip school. Remind them they need to go to school so they can make a life for themselves when they are older. Tell kids you love them and want them to be happy adults.”
• Share the game plan. Block says it is vital for parents to discuss the daily plans with their children so everyone is informed and knows what to expect. “Let them be aware of everything, including who will be at the bus stop or who will be picking them up at school,” she says. “This is especially important for parents who carpool.”
• Seek help. If a child’s anxiety is continuing to grow or parents feel they can not help their child resolve fears it is time to meet with the pediatrician, says Rosenberg. A pediatrician can consult with the family and decide if a therapist can help further help the child.