Back to school

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Author: Sara Adams, Psychologist

Going back to school can be exciting but also anxiety provoking. Many children feel nervous in the buildup to their first day back. Longer holidays and having your child attend school for the first time or starting a new school can create even more anxiety.

Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders; 6.9% of Australians aged 4-17 experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015. This is equivalent to 278,000 young people. Anxiety is not limited to those who suffer from an anxiety disorder – many experience mild to moderate anxiety levels at different times and across different situations.

Parents can feel nervous too and this can create more stress in the family. Preparation and allowing sufficient time (if possible extra time on the first couple of days of school) are key to dealing with anxiety. Check your own behaviour and try and stay calm and positive – children and young people often pick up parents’ negative emotions, whether it is anxiety, stress or sadness, and this makes it more difficult for them to deal with their own emotions. Self-care is the key (examples include engaging in pleasurable activities, catching up with friends and family, spending time in the nature or exercising). 

Here are some strategies and tips to make the transition back to school a positive experience. 

For primary school kids

  • Get back into the school-day routine (waking up, eating, showering and going to bed at regular times) at least 5-7 days before returning to school after the long (summer) holidays and 2-3 days before returning after the 2-week school holidays.
  • For anxious younger kids, talking in detail about what to expect can be calming. For example, talk through the steps of getting to their classroom: "first we put our bag away; we find our friends or other children from our classroom and say hi..etc"  
  • Stick to familiar routines as much as possible. For example, if your child catches the bus to school or is driven to school normally with a friend, do this on the first day back if possible.
  • Try to have a calm evening and allow more time to settle before bedtime.
  • Help your child pack their bag the night before. Talk them through this and help them have everything they need for the day.
  • Lay out their clothes so everything’s ready for the morning and ensure they have their lunches prepared.
  • Allow some extra time to get ready on day one so you’re not rushing.
  • Keep your bedtime talk positive.
  • Organise a catch up/play date with one or more school friends to reconnect with familiar faces.

For secondary school kids

  • Encourage your teen to take responsibility for getting back into the swing of things (waking up, eating, showering and going to bed at regular times) the week before school starts.
  • Talk through any issues or fears they might have (i.e., friends, grades or teachers) a few days before they return to school. Ask what their issues or fears are and what they can do to change the situation.
  • Remind them to pack their bag, organise their school clothes and lunches the night before.
  • Allow some extra time to get ready on day one so they are not rushing.
  • Help your young person re-visit their goals and values (what gives them meaning in life, how they want to be in each area of their lives and how they will set and achieve goals in the valued direction).
  • Suggest or allow them to re-connect with friends face to face before going back.

Starting school for the first time

As well as the tips for primary school children above, you could try some of the following strategies: 

  • Have a few ‘dry runs’ of the trip to and from school so your child is familiar with the route and what to expect.
  • Set up some playdates in the holidays with kids who are also starting school so they see some familiar faces on day one. 
  • Visit the school – check out the playground, find their classroom and have a wander around so they can get used to where things are. 
  • Talk positively about the day ahead on the way to school and remind your child where you’ll be at pick-up time.
  • Drawn-out goodbyes can be upsetting, especially if other kids are getting emotional. Once your child is settled in their classroom, give them some final positive reassurance and beat a hasty retreat. 
  • Try to limit other activities during the first few weeks – the transition to school can be tiring and kids need down time.