For many kids, heading back to school is exciting. New pencil cases full of perfectly sharpened pencils, shiny new books, and reunions with friendly faces make for a re-entry full of smiles and positive emotion. For children who struggle with anxiety, on the other hand, the back to school transition isn’t quite as easy.

Anticipatory anxiety is common among kids with anxiety disorders, and it can begin weeks before the first day of school. The anxious thought cycle that occurs as the transition nears can include worries about learning and understanding new classroom rules, establishing a relationship with a new teacher, meeting academic demands, internalizing a new classroom routine, getting to classes on time, making friends, finding a place to sit at lunch, and completing homework, to name a few.

Anxiety is a normal part of childhood, and many children experience fears and worries at times. In these cases, anxious feelings can actually help the child or teen learn to process and cope with the world around them. Some kids and teens, on the other hand, develop chronic anxiety symptoms. These symptoms can interfere with the ability to perform well in school and make and maintain social relationships. Chronic anxiety symptoms can also negatively affect family relationships and make it difficult to complete normal daily living skills (hygiene, sleep, healthy eating, exercise, etc.). According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 1 in 8 children suffer from anxiety disorders.

As kids prepare to transition back to school, it’s important to prioritize anxiety management and establish plans to help kids learn to cope with their symptoms.

Target Anticipatory Anxiety

Anxious children tend to get caught in anxious thought cycles. A child who repeatedly asks the same questions about the classroom, the teacher, the schedule, and the other kids in the class is a child seeking reassurance. A mind that runs on anticipatory anxiety is a mind full of “what ifs.”

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Anxiety Self-Assessment

While it might feel natural to dismiss these worries as excessive and respond with phrases like, “You’ll be fine,” and “Don’t worry about that,” this kind of reassurance rarely helps kids cope with their worries. A better strategy is to help kids bring their worries to the surface by naming these specific worries, verbalizing the possibilities, and establishing positive counter thoughts to empower your child to work through anxious thoughts. Check out the examples, below:

Anxiety worries:

It’s hard to switch teachers.

I don’t know the rules in the classroom.

I’m worried that I won’t be able to keep up.

Positive counter thoughts:

My new teacher wants to help me learn, just like my old teacher.

I can learn the new routine and rules on the first day.

If I don’t understand something, I can ask a question.

Stuffing down anticipatory anxiety will only cause it to spiral internally, but externalizing the worries and processing them helps kids learn to cope.

Get Back to Basics

Believe it or not, veering too far off a child’s normal daily living schedule can wreak havoc on the child when it’s time to head back to school. Insufficient sleep can worsen anxiety symptoms, and healthy eating and exercise play a role in how well children sleep.

While the summer months often result in later bedtimes and extra ice cream cones, make sure to focus on establishing healthy habits before the first day of school. If your child is in the habit of a later bedtime, gradually push up the bedtime by ten minutes every few nights until you return to the school bedtime sleep schedule. Be honest with your child about the connection between consistent sleep and lower anxiety and talk about the plan to re-establish a healthy sleep schedule.

Daily exercise is another wonderful anxiety management tool. While some kids spend their summers outside riding bikes and playing with peers, others are drawn to more solitary indoor activities like gaming. If your child prefers to stay indoors and is often sedentary in the summer, it’s important to encourage some sort of daily activity. But you don’t need to drag them to the gym—brainstorm fun ways to get them moving.

Try family bike rides. Does your town have a climbing gym? Why not try out a family membership for the summer. Another option is to look for fun exercise classes developed for kids and teens at your local recreation center. If your kid is a techie, use workout apps at home—like Nike workout classes, yoga, or even video games (like WII or dancing games). Or you can keep it simple and make daily trips to the park part of the anxiety management routine. The easiest option is to encourage walking. Two thirty minute walks—one in the morning and one after dinner—can have wonderful mental and physical health benefits. If your neighborhood isn’t pedestrian friendly, head to your local track, park, or greenway.

Finally, focus on healthy nutrition and make sure your child drinks plenty of water. Dehydration triggers both exhaustion and anxious feelings. If your family tends to eat less nutritious foods in the summer due to a hectic schedule, try organizing one night per week where you cook with your child. Ask them to pick a dish they want to cook and do it together or guide them as they figure it out. Not only can this teach them valuable skills (cooking, time management, planning) that they might not otherwise learn until they are out of the house, but it turns meals into something exciting and the act of cooking may be a calming activity for their anxiety symptoms.

Practice Ahead of Time

While some schools release class lists early, many wait until the last possible moment. Either way, you can help ease the transition by walking around the school campus and revisiting the layout.

In addition to those pesky intrusive thoughts that are not grounded in reality, anxious kids also tend to worry about practical matters like finding the nearest bathroom, being on time, and getting from one class to another. Walk around the school and trace your steps from one place to the next to practice getting around. For middle schoolers, you can even set a timer to mimic passing periods and figure out how long it might take to get from a science classroom to PE. And if they are worried about a new locker, purchase a lock they can practice unlocking!

Revisiting the campus reminds kids that they know where to go and how to get there and that they are capable of meeting the daily expectations.

Create An Anxiety Plan

Whether your child suffers from acute panic attacks, generalized anxiety, or mild anxiety, it’s a good idea to have an anxiety plan in place. Ideally, this involves the classroom teacher. Once you know your child’s homeroom teacher, reach out to discuss your child’s anxiety. It’s important to note that some children with anxiety disorders qualify for classroom accommodations with a 504 Plan.

Practice strategies to reduce anxiety, including:

  • Deep breathing (in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4)
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (beginning with hands and arms, tense muscles for five seconds and slowly release. Repeat. Next, move on to feet and legs, then neck and shoulders to release muscle tension)
  • Use a stress ball to relieve muscle tension
  • Use a theraband attached to the desk to relieve stress
  • Do wall push-ups in the back of the classroom to push out tension

Avoid Schedule Overload

Even anxious kids feel the pull to join every activity with their peers, but it’s important to teach kids that part of learning to manage anxiety is knowing your own limits and practicing self-care. Give the back to school transition at least six weeks before you add additional extra-curricular activities. Kids and teens with anxiety need time to settle into their routines and learn how to cope with their anxious thoughts in and out of school.

Anxiety is a normal part of childhood, but if chronic anxiety symptoms are interfering with your child’s life and keeping them from fully participating, making friends, and succeeding in school, know that there are treatment options.

Last Updated: Nov 25, 2018