What to do if your child is anxious about starting school
Get your child to prepare a holiday diary so they have something to talk about at school, show them the way to school a few times, and see if the school teaches social skills
As schools start to open their doors, many parents feel relieved to get their children back to a routine after the holidays. But some are anxious about their child’s transition to the new school year, especially if the youngster has acute social challenges due to either conditions such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome or because they are still adjusting after a recent move to Hong Kong.
My clinical work with children or teenagers affected by social anxiety and third-culture kids who have grown up around the world has given me a glimpse into a fascinating but confusing world. The start of the school year poses challenges to all, but it’s especially scary for youngsters who find themselves out of tune with their classmates.
Of course, having a good start is no guarantee your child will have a school year without scrapes and bumps, but as a parent, you can create a positive learning experience that can motivate your child to overcome challenges and embrace differences.
With some careful planning, you can help reduce your child’s sense of anxiety about starting school.
I have been helping many of my children prepare a holiday diary: each is asked to pick the 10 most exciting things about their summer holiday, and together, we work on what they think other children their age would also be interested in. Instead of focusing on his or her narrow interests, we work on a balanced list of 10 things that others might like, which they have to present to the class.
They are then asked to rehearse a “show and tell” of the holiday highlights with their parents or siblings to get used to how others might respond to the presentation. This exercise not only helps a child feel a sense of control, but also serves as an ice-breaker and gets them thinking about what other classmates might be interested in.
Children, particularly those with special needs, thrive on predictability. Take your child along the route to school a few times before school starts, even if they have a driver take them to the school gate. This school run prepares the child for the morning hassles and lets them know there will be a plan B if the usual route to school is unavailable.
Ideally, start adjusting children’s sleep routines at least a week in advance to help them settle into a pattern that will fit the school morning ritual.
For children not yet speaking or those who have little spoken language skills, practice social situations. I often use Jed Baker’s Social Skills picture books with children or teenagers to teach and role-play appropriate behaviour.
Children and teenagers learn and discuss why certain interactions are the “right” and “wrong” way of communicating, and that helps them build confidence that prepares them for real-life situations. Some children may not understand what is appropriate conduct, but if we teach them explicitly, they can learn rules of social behaviour and apply them in their daily life.
For very anxious children, you might want to set up a pre-school meeting with the teacher or arrange a school tour. Meeting the teacher or getting familiarised with the environment before lessons starts could help lessen some of the uncertainty that comes with a new school year.
Furthermore, check with the school if there are any programmes to build social skills and enrol your child. That not only helps build social skills but allows youngsters to make friends in a small and controlled setting. You could also ask if the school can pair your child with a buddy, so he or she can feel more confident, knowing they have at least one safe person to talk to.
As parents, you can also prepare yourself – identify the least stressful way to school and develop a morning ritual that helps you stay calm. Your child needs you to act as the anchor during major periods of adjustment.
Lora Lee is a registered child psychologist and divorce co-parenting counsellor working in private practice