By the time this article publishes, we will be less than a week away from school starting back. For my incoming third grader, and for so many others, this will be the first time she’s set foot in a classroom since March 2020 after being homeschooled last year. In fact, she’s now been out of school almost as long as she’d been in it since starting kindergarten. Much of the anxiety she felt when starting school for the first time has returned in the past couple weeks. Add to that my son beginning kindergarten this year, as well as my own chronic anxiety, and our house is a big ol’ ball of nerves these days.
I’ve been brainstorming some ways to help my kids, and myself, cope with the anticipation of school starting (because isn’t the waiting for the unknown the worst part?) and I want to share them in case they might be helpful to any other mamas dealing with similar back to school fears right now. Part of the heartbreaking thing is that this is something our kids ultimately have to walk through alone, without us by their sides. But my hope is that the following ideas help my kids feel supported and reassured that we can deal with some of these big feelings together.
- Make a list of questions to ask their teacher. When my daughter is feeling worried about all the things she doesn’t remember about how school routine works, I am making notes to ask her teacher about it during Meet the Teacher night. Having a clear picture of how her day will go and knowing she is prepared helps ease some of her fears. Emailing your kid’s teacher is also a great option if you aren’t able to meet them before the first day. As a former teacher myself, I can assure you they will be happy to do what they can to assuage any first day jitters.
- Get things organized and ready to begin the new year. We spent some time this week clearing out all the old papers/folders/notebooks from last year that needed to be filed or thrown away. I designated a spot for papers brought home from school to go. We bought school supplies. My daughter tested and threw away old markers. A cluttered, overwhelming environment only intensifies anxiety. Simple tasks like this help all of us feel a measure of control and preparedness.
- Set aside some time for one-on-one dates with your school age kids. Spend time doing a favorite activity, going to a special restaurant or even shopping for a back to school outfit. This will provide plenty of opportunity for conversation if they need to talk out their feelings. Strengthening their connection to the important adults in their life is like giving them armor to put on against the worries of their world. It reassures them you are present and available and will be ready to help with any stressful situations that come up.
- Give them a small, wearable gift they can have with them at school when you can’t be. Before kindergarten I bought matching necklaces for my daughter and me. She wore hers every day for the better part of the year and could touch it for a little courage when she needed it and know I was wearing mine at home. I have a bracelet set I am planning to give my son. Wearable gifts are ideal because they usually won’t be too much of a distraction for the kids while at school or go against a teacher’s policy of not bringing items from home.
- Anticipate extra time being needed for bedtime routine. My kids are both at their chattiest at night and it’s the time they most often choose to talk about things which are bothering them. When we are going through any big transition, I know to plan for my kids needing some extra snuggles and closeness at bedtime. Though I’m often in a hurry to get to whatever else still awaits me that day, when I go into it knowing that they will probably need more time, I am less inclined to be impatient about bedtime taking longer. This reinforces to them that I will be a safe, constant source of comfort for them no matter what they may be dealing with during the day.
- Try letting kids fall asleep to an audiobook. This is a trick my mom used with me as a super anxious kid and I’ve found it very helpful for my kids as well. The nighttime tends to be the scariest time for little minds running wild with all the worst possible outcomes of a situation. Listening to a favorite book as they’re trying to fall asleep tends to be enough of a distraction to help keep intrusive thoughts at bay while also allowing their little bodies to relax enough for sleep to come.
- Keep plans low key for the evenings and weekends of the first month back. We go back when it still feels like the dead of summer here in Tennessee. It may be tempting to plan a few more summer outings for August weekends but keep in mind that your kids may not be up for it, especially if they’ve had a difficult adjustment to being away from the house for almost eight hours a day, five days a week. They might need extra home time and benefit from a lazy schedule while trying to get used to a very rigorous school routine during the week. Time in the evenings and weekends spent with their toys and their loved ones might be a better investment into their mental well-being once Monday rolls around again.
Unfortunately, no amount of planning or distracting can make dealing with tear-filled goodbyes on school mornings much easier. It’s one of those hard parts of life that we all just have to push through, knowing it will get easier with time and familiarity. But using a few of these strategies to remind your kids you will be waiting on them at home, ready to help soothe them and process the day together, can make all the difference for anxious kids who just want to know they’re not going to have to face the scary things all by themselves.