Back-to-School Anxiety: 6 Ways to Fight the Fear

Often a happy and busy time of year, returning to school can be stressful for some kids. A Michigan Medicine pediatric psychologist offers advice for families.

7:00 AM

Author | Blake Lancaster, Ph.D.

The start of a new school year is filled with excitement for many children.

Others, though, may find that the big event brings stomachaches, tantrums or a reluctance to ride the bus signs that could indicate the onset of anxiety.

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Such worry is understandable. From the prospect of more homework to unfamiliar social situations, there's plenty to trigger feelings of fret.

Those emotions are natural but can become a problem if they interfere with daily life.

Families can take simple, positive steps to prepare for the annual milestone. School, after all, is the foundation for building academic and social skills that lead to a better life. Communication and coping strategies whether or not a particular fear comes to pass can help a child succeed in that setting. 

Here's how to make the transition easier for everyone.

6 tips for managing back-to-school anxiety

Establish a routine: Before school begins, rehearse your child's daily walking route or determine where to catch the bus. Take advantage of any open houses with teachers and staff if they're offered. And re-establish the family's bedtime and morning routines a week or two in advance so it's not a total change on the first day of school. Practice makes perfect.

Foster trust: For younger kids attending school for the first time, the biggest source of anxiety is separation from parents for a significant portion of the day. Children with experience in day care and preschool often are more well-suited for that transition. The key thing to stress to kids is that you'll come back when school is out. They can only learn that lesson through practice.

SEE ALSO: Parents' Top 10 Children's Health Concerns (and How to Handle Them)

Spot distress signals: When kids are anxious, you see a variety of responses to escape the situation emotional or behavior outbursts as well as physical symptoms such as abdominal pain and headaches. Parents should acknowledge their child's reaction but encourage the child to stay in the classroom. Most of that goes away in the first couple of weeks.

Listen first: Caregivers too often default into leading a discussion. Instead, let children guide the exchange. Do a lot of active listening. Give them reassurance but try not to dismantle or analyze their fears. Rationalization and overprocessing can feed anxiety. Keep the conversation short and at their developmental level. Let them know it will be OK, but don't overdo it.

Acknowledge and defer: Parental attention that accompanies soothing can incite more anxious behavior. That's why I recommend placing reasonable limits by setting aside time each day (but not before bed) when your child can discuss his or her fears. That will help your child learn to self-soothe, stay engaged in life and process these issues at the proper time.

Seek help if necessary: If a child is starting to miss school consistently by more than a few days here or there or if the physical discomfort doesn't go away after a couple of weeks talk to your pediatrician or a school guidance counselor. You want to help children learn not to withdraw from the situation at hand. Otherwise, it teaches that anxiety can boss them around.

More Articles About: Children's Health CS Mott Children's Hospital Developmental Milestones anxiety Hospitals & Centers
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories sketched out bacteria in a dish yellow and blue colors of U-M
Health Lab
This gross mixture has big benefits for the study of bacteria
Michigan Medicine researchers have found that growing bacteria on agar mixed with organs is an efficient and effective way to study infectious pathogens.
three pharmacists smiling
Health Lab
An innovative pharmacy service for pain management
An innovative service at Michigan Medicine offers pain management support for patients and care teams
family smiling togehter
Health Lab
Ketogenic diet helps 4-year-old live seizure free
Last year, a young girl experienced up to 40 seizures a week. Today, after nearly a year of working with the ketogenic diet team at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital – overseen by a pediatric neurologist and dietitian – she’s celebrating six months of seizure freedom.
woman listening to different shadow windows of people saying different things about kids
Health Lab
Parents of young kids increasingly turn to social media for parenting advice
A C.S. Mott Children's Hospital health poll found most mothers and over two-thirds of fathers of children ages 0-4 use social media for questions on topics like feeding and behavior challenges.
human organ for transplant
Health Lab
Findings shed light on how a pediatric heart surgery complication impacts heart transplant survival
Patients who experience this condition following the Fontan continue to have a high risk of death from the time they’re waitlisted for a new heart through receiving the transplant, according to a 20-center study led by Michigan Medicine. And one specific complication called cyanosis – or experiencing less than normal oxygen blood levels – was associated with worsened survival.
wheelchair walker image
Health Lab
Spread of drug resistant bacteria linked to patient hand contamination and antibiotic use within nursing homes
A Michigan Medicine research team seeks to identify characteristics of patients within nursing homes, as well as the nursing home environment itself, that are associated with contamination by vancomycin-resistant enterococci.