A new school year is upon us, which could mean a new routine, a new classroom or even a new school for some families. Your child might greet new people, places and experiences with a mix of excitement and nervousness — which is entirely normal.

This fall, however, their back-to-school jitters could be heightened by fears about school violence. Your kids may also be adapting to changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. How a child responds to such situations will depend on their age, personality and past history of trauma. Common reactions to fear and anxiety include:

  • Separation anxiety
  • Changes to sleep and appetite
  • Physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches
  • Withdrawal from activities they used to enjoy
  • Difficulty focusing and concentrating
  • Acting out
  • Self-harm

Children turn to the adults in their lives to help them make sense of scary, confusing situations. Here are nine ways you can help support a child who is feeling anxious about the return to school.

1. Be an open book. First, it is crucial that you honor how your child is feeling. Avoiding the topic will only worsen their fears. Listen to what they have to say and welcome their questions. They will find comfort in knowing you’re available, whenever they are ready to talk about what’s bothering them.

You don’t have to discuss everything all at once — in fact, a series of shorter conversations may be more effective than one long one. Answer your child’s questions honestly using age-appropriate language. If you don’t know something, look it up or get back to them. Facts help people of all ages cope because we are especially afraid of the unknown.

2. Emphasize safety. Your child may be terrified that something bad is going to happen to them or someone they care about at school. It may help to discuss all the steps your family, their school and the larger community are taking to keep everyone safe. For example, you can seek reassurance in the daily health screenings and the strict protocols for school visitors.

3. Find security in routines. It’s easy to overlook them, but predictable daily routines — think bedtimes, waking times and mealtimes — can instill a sense of comfort when the rest of the world seems out of our control. Structured family time prepares children for the school year, especially after a hectic or lax summer schedule.

4. Practice self-care as a family. Tending to your health is a tried-and-true way to prevent and cope with stress. Guide your children in eating right, drinking enough water and getting enough sleep and exercise. Do the same for yourself, as your wellbeing is just as important (plus, you’re their #1 role model!).

5. Limit kids’ media exposure. When something tragic happens, it is bound to end up on a constant loop on TV, radio and social media. Coverage of events such as school shootings can be very frightening for young people. If your older child is on social media, they may be exposed to misinformation and rumors as well, compounding the problem.

To protect their interests, scale back or eliminate their exposure to these news sources. And be careful what you say about current events with other adults — children are apt to pick up on the details, even if you don’t think they are listening.  

6. Reconnect. Reinforcing positive experiences with teachers, staff and classmates can help override any negative feelings about school. Plan to attend open houses and other back-to-school events with your child. Walking around campus and seeing familiar faces again will help increase their comfort level.

7. Pick a transitional object. Think of a transitional object as the equivalent of the favorite “lovie” your child had as a baby and toddler. As they grow, children can find the same comfort in a family photo, bracelet or a pretty seashell they can keep in their pocket. This small token can be anything they wish, as long as it isn’t too distracting for the classroom.

8. Redirect as needed. If you notice your child acting out, you may need to channel their nervous energy into other outlets such as sports, journaling or artwork. The goal of these activities is to help release their intense feelings in healthy ways, whether physically or creatively.

9. Be patient. It will take time for your child to adjust to all the changes and conquer any fears they have about returning to school. Be patient, and before long your family should fall into a rhythm. If your child’s fear and anxiety lasts longer than a few weeks or is significantly interfering with their daily life, seek professional help. You can get a referral for a qualified counselor from your school administration, pediatrician or caseworker.  

We hope these tips will help you and your child ease back into the school year — and encourage the lifelong love of learning that is so important to their future success. Visit Foster In Texas and check out our training calendar for more resources, designed just for foster parents in Texas.

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