Read more: Back-to-school anxiety? Here are seven simple solutions
Work with your child to think about ways you can practise these situations in the holiday period to provide them with more information that show things usually turn out OK – and, more often than not, they can handle it.
The first year of schoolIf this is your child’s first year of school, use the time in the holidays to practise school-relevant tasks like being away from you, asking questions, independent toileting, sitting still, or following instructions. Early learning environments, like preschool, have already prepared your child for many of these tasks. But if you are concerned your child is still not ready, then practise these situations in a gradual step-by-step way. Encourage your child’s independence over the next few weeks by giving them opportunities to do more for themselves.
Changing schoolsVisiting the new school ahead of the start date can be a useful way of preparing for the new school. But as this is not always possible, there are many other ways you can practise new situations over the holidays, like attending holiday programs, doing a new activity, or gently encouraging your child to move outside their comfort zone. Ask your child to think about other times they have been in a new environment and made friends. Remembering past positive situations might help them to better predict what is most likely to happen on day one at school. It is easy to fall into the trap of providing too much reassurance, so help your child to calm themselves without having to rely on you to do it for them.
First year of high schoolThe first year of high-school will, for many students, bring new routines and structure. This may include different bell times, multiple teachers, new transport, and new expectations. Orientation days are a good way to find out more about the school. Practise any new tasks, like catching the bus, before school starts to reduce anxiety about this on the first day. Some may need to practise getting used to unpredictable routines or not knowing every detail beforehand.
Final year of schoolIf your child doesn’t have the stress management and study skills to manage the increased workload of the final years of high school, there are several programs and services available which can help them improve. It may also be valuable to have an honest conversation with them about what they need from you and how you can best support them in their final year of school. Children of parents who provide supportive and encouraging environments actually perform better than children whose parents pressure them to perform. Given most students will report feeling stressed in the final year due to high-stakes testing, consider reducing additional stresses like moving or other big changes in this year.
Are first-day jitters normal?Fears and worries are common in childhood and adolescence. For some children, this worry may become unmanageable and might prevent the child from attending school, making friends, sleeping or from achieving their best at school. If you think your child’s worry is affecting their life, there are many evidence based programs and services effective in reducing anxiety and worry like the Centre for Emotional Health or Brave Online. Experiencing significant problems with anxiety in childhood does increase the young person’s risk of developing other mental health difficulties throughout life. It is important to reach out for evidence-based help such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
Are you ready?Children look to their parents and caregivers to know when they should be worried or fearful in a situation. If you are communicating messages, subtle or overt, that the new school is a scary situation, then this will serve to increase the child’s first-day jitters.
Read more: When to send a child to school causes anxiety and confusion for parents
It is important to normalise your child’s feelings of anxiety on the first day, but it is also important to communicate the message that you think they can handle it. Milestones in your child’s life are significant. Think ahead of time what strategies you might need to put in place (like visiting a supportive friend after the first drop-off) so you can provide the best “coping” role model for your child. This is not about you being fearless – but about showing your child effective ways to manage challenging situations.
Jennie Hudson works for Macquarie University. She receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Research Council and Australian Rotary Health. Jennie is an author on the Cool Kids suite of treatment programs for children and adolescents with anxiety disorders. She does not receive royalties from this treatment program. She is an author on books related to anxiety disorders in children from which she has received royalties/payments. Jennie is also the Director of the Centre for Emotional Health, Macquarie University which provides treatment for children and adolescents with anxiety disorders.