The beginning of the school year elicits many different emotions for children as September approaches. Some children may experience excitement about seeing friends, anxiety about adjusting to a new teacher, sadness because the summer is over, or frustration over having to wake up early. All of these feelings are typical reactions to the new school year. Unfortunately some children experience intense fear and anxiety about returning to school. These feelings might present as resistance to going to school or even made-up excuses and reasons to stay home. There are many possible reasons a child might have strong negative feelings about school. Some possibilities include fear of academic failure, teasing or bullying by another student, learning problems, feelings of self-consciousness about changing for physical education class, or a preference toward the home environment.
If your child experiences intense fear and anxiety about returning to school that last beyond the first few weeks often needed to adjust to school, there are some steps you may want to take. Depending on the age of your child, ask your child the reasons for his or her negative feelings toward school. With younger children, you may want to ask general questions like, “What did you do at school today? Tell me about the kids in your class. What made you sad or happy today?” If your child does not verbalize any problems, you may want to speak to the teacher and inquire about his or her observations. Did your child interact with the other children or stand around and mope? Did your child get answers incorrect when called upon? Hopefully you will be able to determine the reason for your child’s school anxiety.
If there is a problem with a bully, speaking with the teacher may be your first step, but should not be your last. It is important to empower children to assert themselves. This assertion may be telling a bully to stop or walking away from teasing. Regardless of the behavioral intervention, it is important that the child knows he or she can overcome a bullying situation.
In cases where fear of academic failure or learning problems are the cause of school avoidance, children’s abilities should be assessed. As a parent, you may see your child placing too much pressure on him or herself to succeed. This can be eased by parents giving their children permission to be less than perfect. Of course all parents want their children to do well in school, but academic achievement should not compromise any child’s mental health or self-esteem. Parents can put academics into perspective for children.
If a child’s anxiety about academics comes from real delays in learning, a child should be assessed for special education services. Children may need extra help in a particular subject or extended time to complete tests. Special education services may provide the help needed to ensure a child’s academic success and ease their fears of school.
In circumstances where a child is self-conscious about his or her body, especially during the puberty years, parents may have to discuss how different children physically develop at very different rates. This may even be the time to buy a young girl more mature undergarments.
In other cases, a child may not want to leave the safety and security of home for the school environment. This child may also resist other changes in environment, like rearranging furniture or discarding clothes that no longer fit. With this child, a parent may help the child identify a special toy or stuffed animal from home that can go to school with the child, but remain in a backpack. This toy should act as a transitional toy that can be with him or her when a parent cannot be there. I also recommend a book entitled The Kissing Hand by Audry Penn. This book about a raccoon who does not want to go to school, should be read by a parent to a child. It encourages children to feel loved by a parent even when they are apart.
Finally, in situations where continued school fears and anxiety lead to attendance problems, poor concentration, sleep disturbance, repeated fabricated health problems (stomachaches, headaches, etc.), or parent-child relationship problems, professional help should be sought. School problems may be a sign of underlying issues, warranting the interventions of a professional therapist.
Dr. Golson is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in therapy with children, adolescents and families. She has been working with families in crisis and traumatized adolescents in New York for over 10 years. Her private practice office in Bayonne is located at 325 Avenue C. Dr. Golson looks forward to answering any questions you may have regarding family issues, child behavior, or developmental concerns. You may submit questions or make an appointment with Dr. Golson via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (201) 230-8660. You can also follow her on Twitter @drgolson.