With many children returning to school this week following their mid-term break, some may be more reluctant than others.
Skipping back into school – or not?
Many children come down with a case of ‘back-to-school blues’ as they return to the routine of a school day and as their mid-term break fades into memory. It can be challenging to get back into that routine after their holiday staying up late and having fun with friends and family.
For some children, going back to school can also be daunting if they are worried about keeping up with schoolwork, friendship problems, or how they might get on more generally. Nerves about returning to school can manifest in several ways, from irritability to tears at the school gates.
So how can you cope with this routine challenge as a parent or carer? And how do you tell if it is something more serious?
How to tackle back-to-school blues
According to Vanesa Cobham, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Queensland, there are a few ways you can support your child and the family as you all head back to the daily routine of school.
1. Plan ahead together
There are lots of ways you can gently work in a new routine – from encouraging kids to pack their bags the night before to thinking of lunchbox ideas together.
Giving your child choices and the chance to be part of the decision-making process around routines will give them a sense of ownership and independence. For example, you could negotiate bedtime for the school term times.
There are other fun, simple ways you can support them through this time. For example, you could create a music playlist for the school run, set aside a regular time after school to do something you both enjoy (like a play at the park, seeing friends, or buying ice cream), or set up a reward system for getting homework done on time.
2. Chat about school
Check-in regularly with your child about their feelings, particularly in the early weeks. Try to do this in a way that shows that you’re interested rather than concerned.
For example, keep the questions open-ended: “what happened in your day?”. Also, keep a positive focus, such as, “what was the best bit of your day?”
3. Look after yourself
With a hundred different things to think about, many parents and carers often forget about their own needs. But it is crucial to give yourself time to recharge and reach out for support from friends, family, or a health professional if needed.
If you are calm and positive, your kids will find it easier to remain calm and positive, too.
But what if it is more than just returning to school?
Nervousness about returning to school is normal. But some children will experience anxiety about going to school that causes them significant problems. Because everybody feels worried or anxious from time to time, it can be tough to know how to distinguish between “normal” nervousness and problematic (or clinically significant) anxiety.
There are two key ideas to keep in mind: are the feelings causing high and persistent levels of distress? Are they stopping your child from doing what they want or should be able to do?
Signs to look out for
When it comes to school-related anxiety, there are some specific signs to look for –
- frequently feeling physically sick (such as a tummy or headache) and unable to go to school. Anxiety causes physical changes in our bodies, so when kids say they’re feeling sick, they’re telling the truth. It’s just they might be describing “worry sick” as opposed to “doctor sick.”
- becoming teary, angry, or aggressive when thinking or talking about school
- being uncharacteristically slow to get moving on school mornings
- avoiding activities that relate to school, such as joining a sporting team, putting on their uniform, or going on a play date.
Is this school refusal?
School refusal or avoidance (when a child regularly fails to attend class for some or all of the day) has anecdotally been on the increase since COVID. If you’re starting to think your child’s anxiety may be falling into the problematic zone, you are not the only one.
For example, anxiety is the second most common mental health problem experienced by all children in Australia (among girls, it takes first place).
Children with clinically significant anxiety don’t tend to “just grow out of it” without treatment. Anxiety (often together with ADHD) tends to be the cause of school reluctance or refusal.
If you notice your child is struggling to get to school, acting quickly is essential. The more time kids miss in school, the harder it becomes for them to return. The first thing to do is work with school staff. Your child’s classroom teacher can tell you if they or someone else in the school is the best person to be talking to.
If necessary, seek further support from a health professional. You can start with your GP, who may suggest a referral to a psychologist. There are also free, evidence-based programs developed by clinical psychologists for parents of children experiencing anxiety.
Although dealing with this issue can be daunting, it is essential to know you are not alone and that there are interventions that can help.
If you recognize the issues in this article, check out our Get Help page for further advice and support.