For some students, returning to school is an exciting time. They look forward to getting new clothes or supplies, meeting their teachers and reuniting with friends.

For others, it can be overwhelming. Will they like their teacher? How do they find their classes? Will they have any friends in their class? How do they know which bus to get on at the end of the day?

Sometimes those looming questions can manifest physically in adolescents, but there are ways parents can identify these back-to-school jitters, differentiate them from anxiety, and help their children work through them while still teaching autonomy.

“Being anxious and being nervous are a perfectly normal response to an unusual situation. Some people show anxiety more than others. Some people look completely fine and some are shaking and sweating. You just have to know your own kids,” said Timothy Owens, a Kent State sociology professor with an expertise in children and youth transitions and mental health and co-editor of Society and Mental Health, a journal of the American Sociology Association.

Kristen Pavelko, a licensed professional clinical counselor, explained that back-to-school nervousness and jitters cross the border into anxiety when it begins to impede a child's daily function. Young children with back-to-school anxiety will start to have more meltdowns while older children will complain about headaches, stomachaches and nausea.

“For parents, it’s understanding that it could be anxiety and not an actual illness and making sure that we’re having those conversations with our kids and checking in. You see a huge spike when it’s a transition year, when they’re switching buildings. Even though it may not look like kids are anxious, still check in with them because they can respond with a freeze — they become numb, they don’t want to talk and they can withdraw. Sometimes people think that’s depression, but it can be anxiety presenting as well,” said Pavelko, a school-based therapist with Children’s Advantage and Aurora City Schools.

How to help

According to the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County, there are a number of ways parents can help alleviate stress and anxiety before the first day of class, including practicing and discussing the school routine, organizing school supplies, planning lunches, and if it’s a new school, trying to meet a few children before the first day.

Streetsboro school counselors Shimaa Shendy, grades 3-5, and Stephanie Tutkovics, grades K-2, also recommend getting students’ eating schedules aligned with the school schedule.

If a student is nervous about what to wear, Tutkovics recommended doing a mini fashion show before school begins. Pavelko — who has also worked in the Crestwood, James A. Garfield, Field and Waterloo districts — said that many schools will also allow children who have identified busing as a trigger to come to the bus garage to see a bus or meet their bus driver.

Owens and Pavelko agree that the best way parents can help children with back-to-school anxiety is to know their children’s behavior patterns and to make themselves available.

If the child brings up concerns, Owens said to reframe the worry in a positive light.

“If they’re worried they won’t fit in, reframe it: How cool is it that you get to meet new kids, that’ll be fun. You just have to use your own imagination and adjust it to your own child,” he said.

Pavelko recommended a 15- to 20-minute “worry time” in a safe space, such as a bedroom or playroom, to talk about anything that is bothering the child.

Pavelko recommended refraining from phrases like “Don’t worry” or “Relax.”

“It negates what they’re feeling. It’s like saying your feelings don’t match what’s happening and for them, that’s reality,” she said.

During that time, parents can relate experiences and explain how they coped, practice different stress-relieving activities like coloring or deep breathing, or make a plan to do something they like.

“Another thing you can do is trust the school. They’re experts and they know what they’re doing” Owens said.

If it persists

“Normal first-day jitters happen, but when you’re looking at it going on for the first month of school, we have to figure something out. By then, a routine should be established, they should have met any special teachers they’re switching to, and they should be more comfortable by then. If that’s still not happening, that’s when I would suggest more,” Pavelko said.

Pavelko said parents should first reach out to their student’s teacher because oftentimes there can be a classroom-based intervention. If that doesn’t help, Pavelko said to reach out to school counselors, who can offer groups that meet during the school day to provide support and can do one-on-one check-ins.

 

Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@recordpub.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.