If first day of school memories conjure up the smell of crayons, images of a new lunchbox, and feelings of a nervous stomach, you’re not alone. Nearly all students experience some mild anxiety when separating from home, friends and siblings and starting the new school year or other new activity. The nervous feelings usually go away quickly, but in some cases, they doesn’t subside – and can become a condition that impacts a child’s ability to succeed.
Experts at northern Virginia’s Dominion Hospital Choices School Refusal Program have developed procedures to help you separate normal jitters from serious anxiety. We also have treatments that give hope to parents and the kids who suffer at school.
The signs of anxiety
Anxiety and worry are emotions everyone feels at some point. The most common symptoms of anxiety in children and teens include:
- Physical complaints such as stomachaches, nausea, headaches or an increased heart rate
- Expressing worries or fears, especially about academic failure, health issues (“What if I have cancer?”), potential dangers (“What if the bus breaks down?”), or the new situation
- A change in social cues, such as not participating in class or not talking to other kids
- Other behavioral issues or changes, including lying, being angry, irritable, or inflexible; excessive shyness or a sudden withdrawal; memory problems; overreacting; and repetitive behaviors
It’s normal to experience a few moments of nervousness or even a few days of these symptoms at the start of a new school year as long as kids eventually do make it to school and are able to stay for the whole day. This stress can even be beneficial in helping students learn self-reliance, self-calming and resilience techniques.
Many kids also find occasional jitters popping up throughout the school year when there’s a big test or a project due, when they forget an assignment or are surprised by a grade, or when facing an experience, they dread, like running the mile in PE or dissecting a frog in science. Again, these are normal reactions to life’s stress.
Students who continue to show increasing signs of anxiety while going to school and those whose symptoms are so severe they cannot make it to school or stay for a full day, may have moved into a more serious category and developed a generalized anxiety disorder. In these cases, ordinary situations make the student feel intensely fearful. They may find it hard to concentrate, feel as if their mind goes “blank” as worry takes over, and have unexplained headaches, muscle aches, and other pain accompanied by anxious thoughts. The body’s natural reaction to such heightened stress is to flee to avoid the fear.
What can parents do?
To keep healthy stress from becoming chronic anxiety, parents and primary caregivers can support their students.
- Spend time with your children
- Give your kids a stable home environment and family routines. Establish home rules and consequences, and stick to these rules
- Monitor their eating habits
- Really communicate with your kids. Attentively listen. When children misbehave, try to understand their behavior instead of just punishing it
- Don’t focus solely on, or reward, grades. Instead note effort and progress, personal growth and talk about self-pride
The anxiety cycle and school avoidance
For some children, fear can trigger a cycle. They feel anxious, so they want to avoid the situation. Once away from the fear, they feel better, and the avoidance is reinforced. School avoidance affects approximately five percent of school-aged children annually. Of course, the fear isn’t of school per se but of a specific situation put into play during the school day. Root causes can be anything from bullying to embarrassment about not understanding their coursework, to attention-seeking.
Help for school anxiety and avoidance
Teachers, administrators, school counselors and even school nurses are all trained to help with student stress and occasional anxiety. But situations needing more than reassurance or a change in class schedules can leave parents feeling alone and powerless. Anxiety or avoidance that impacts a student more than a few days demands professional help. Waiting to get help only reinforces the negative cycle.
Dominion Hospital’s Choices School Refusal Program is the only program of its kind in the region, specifically developed to treat school anxiety. We develop personalized plans of care designed to address and treat specific symptoms that result in a child’s school phobia. Our programs help children and teens develop critical skills for managing symptoms of anxiety and depression related to school, and to improve communication at home.
We help ease children into going back into school by:
- Developing school and anxiety-based coping skills
- Building social skills
- Decreasing social anxiety
- Changing negative thinking patterns
- Teaching parents to address noncompliant behaviors
- Empowering parents to better support their child or children
- Reducing family conflict
- Increasing rewards for going to school
- Decreasing rewards for missing school