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3 tips to calm back-to-school anxiety in elementary students, adolescents and teens

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Feeling nervous about going back to school is common for students of all ages—whether first graders or college co-eds. But some kids experience intense anxiety that goes far beyond school season jitters.

Is your son or daughter affected? Depending on your child's age, he or she might simply be able to tell you how they're feeling. Or, you might notice warning signs in the weeks leading up to the new school season that indicate your child is feeling distressed, such as: 

  • Tantrums or emotional breakdowns when separating from caregivers
  • Increased irritability and other mood changes 
  • "Unexplained" physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, fatigue and changes in sleep patterns

If you suspect your child is anxious about heading back to school, know that neither of you are alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety among school-aged adolescents, teens and young adults is common and has increased significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic.

How can we as parents help our children understand and manage their back-to-school anxiety? Here are three approaches that can help. 

1. Plan and prepare 

Use the end of the summer as a time to plan and prepare for the upcoming school season. This will help your child know what to expect and can ease some of their worries. Think of it like a dress rehearsal!

Preparing your child for the new school year might include the following strategies: 

  • Visit the school with them before the new year begins. If possible, you could even arrange to have your child see their new classroom, meet their new teacher, or simply spend some time playing in the playground. 
  • Do a "dry run" of the morning school drop-off or bus pick-up. Make it fun by having your child pick out an outfit and choose a favorite breakfast!
  • If you haven't already, schedule some play dates with friends. Having familiar faces at school is backed by research as a way to help kids ease into the school setting and can even improve academic performance.
  • Begin implementing your family's school year routines at least a week in advance of the first day of class. This is critical to helping your child manage the transition from summer vacation to the school season. Areas to focus on include earlier bedtimes, organizing belongings and cutting back on screen time, if applicable.
  • Keep an open and honest conversation going. It's important to validate your child's feelings and let them know that it's normal to feel excited, nervous or even worried about a new school year. Ask questions and let your child know they can talk to you about their concerns. 


2. Keep your kids moving 

Numerous research studies show that exercise can help combat symptoms of anxiety and other mental health conditions like depression. So encourage your child to stay physically active, especially in the months and weeks leading up to the new school year. Not only can this help ease their anxiety symptoms, but it will also offer them other important health benefits, too, including improved attention span and memory, a healthier weight and better heart, brain, bone, muscle and lung function. 

How much exercise should your child get? You might find that even as little as 10 to 15 minutes of daily exercise can be effective. But it's even better if you can help your child get the recommended 60 minutes of moderately to vigorously intense exercise per day to optimize health benefits. Choose from a range of age-appropriate activities they love, including hiking, swimming, organized sports and even playtime at the park as a family. 

And remember: kids rely on role models. If you want your child to be more physically active, make sure you exercise regularly, too.

3. Know your resources 

Did you know that American public schools are required by federal law to provide special accommodations for any students experiencing anxiety? If you're concerned about your child, don't hesitate to reach out to your local school officials for help. 

We also encourage you to reach out to a mental health care provider if you feel that your family could use some additional support and guidance.

Get ready for back-to-school season

Whether your kids need yearly check-ups, sports physicals or other physical or mental health care services, our team at SIU Medicine is here to help! Find a doctor today and help your child start the new school year feeling confident and ready to learn. 

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