How to get a grip on that first-day-of-school anxiety

Going back to school can be a joyful occasion – or not.
Going back to school can be a joyful occasion – or not.

Children around South Africa are set to start another academic year – the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.

It is also a major milestone for those parents who will be sending their children to “big school” for the first time.

A major event like this may stir up feelings of fear, uncertainty and angst in parents and children.

Cape Town educational psychologist, Dr Yusuf Lalkhen, says that anxiety is your body’s way of communicating that a situation is making you feel unsafe or stressed.

An old feeling?

Many children who are starting grade one are already familiar with being away from parents, grandparents or guardians. 

Lalkhen says that many children are placed at daycare centres or creches when they’re three or four years old, and then pre-school when they’re five or six.

What helps with first-day jitters is if the child is attending the same school as an older sibling.

Despite these factors, there is still some anxiety for children and parents on the first day of grade one.

A new feeling?

Lalkhen says: “For children, it is about entering a larger world than they’re used to and making new friends. On the part of the parents it is the realisation that their children will be entering the world of ‘formal education’, filled with expectations, obligations and responsibilities.

“They worry about whether their child will connect with their teacher or get along with their classmates or perform according to the school's expectations.”

Parents should be careful about being over-protective and projecting their feelings of fear and angst onto their children.

“Children look to parents for information on how to interpret and respond to new and sometimes ambiguous situations. Therefore, if a parent appears consistently anxious and fearful about a situation, children may interpret that situation or environment as unsafe.

“Parents who are anxious may transmit that anxiety to their children, but this is not necessarily inevitable. Most anxious parents learn to manage their anxiety and to present a calm and confident demeanor to their children,” says Lalkhen.

Varying degrees of anxiety

Lalkhen adds that there are varying degrees of anxiety that can range from mild, moderate, severe to a state of panic.

“Mild anxiety is fairly common and occasionally, it can help you focus and orientate yourself. Once you’ve done so, the anxiety dissipates.

“Moderate anxiety, in a parent, for example, may be centred around the child’s teacher – is she kind, warm and a good match for my child? Meeting the teacher could alleviate the anxiety.

“Severe anxiety is experienced when you perceive a situation to be such that your ability to focus and resolve the problem is severely impaired.

“The most disruptive and challenging form of anxiety is at panic level, where it overwhelms a person’s capacity to function adequately. One should be concerned should you experience the last two levels of anxiety,” said Lalkhen.

Assistant Professor in Paediatrics at Harvard, Dr Claire McCarthy, published a few tips to help parents and children make the transition a little smoother.

Keep talking

McCarthy says that parents and children should have been talking about school for a while. Talking about how children will get ready in the morning, how they will get to school and how they will learn new things at school and meet new friends while they’re at school.

Parents should also let their children know who will be there to collect them, once their school day is done, and what the remainder of the day will look like.

Include them in the planning

When planning for school, include your child. When shopping for their school uniform, besides the fact that they need to try it on for size, make them feel good about how they look in their uniform and teach them about taking care of their uniforms.

The same goes for stationery shopping and finding all the books they'll need, along with shopping for their lunch groceries and making healthy choices about what they'll be eating during the day.

Create structure

Get your children into a routine – even though they may hate the thought of it and hate going through the same schedule day-in and day-out; they will thank you for it… eventually.

Lalkhen says that structure and routine creates an environment which is conducive to minimising anxiety.

“Structure and routine provides children with a sense of predictability, familiarity and security. If this is the nature of the home environment, it becomes easier for a child to make the transition to another environment where these features are present.

“Not only do these children respond well to structure and routine, but they often find ways to create that structure and routing to manage themselves better.”

Image credit: iStock

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