An Akron Children’s Hospital child psychiatrist said a common misnomer about kids who experience school anxiety is that they don’t like school.
“It’s important for parents to know that most children who have school anxiety actually like school!” said Dr. Laura Markley, medical director, Consultation/Liaison Psychiatry. “The fearsome part for many children is being away from their parents or home; not the experience of being at school.”
Anxiety disorders are the number one mental health concern affecting youth, she said. Several symptoms of school-related anxiety can also be seen in other anxiety disorders.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, school-related anxiety affects 2 to 5 percent of children and teens, commonly between ages 5 and 6, 10 and 11 and transition times, such as entering middle and high school.
Physical symptoms from anxiety can be real
Anxiety in elementary-aged children commonly presents as physical symptoms – upset stomach, headache, sometimes even nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, she said.
“It is important to understand that they are not ‘faking’ these symptoms, even though in many cases the symptoms will go away shortly after being told they can remain home, on weekends, or days off,” Dr. Markley said. “With any age child, the anxiety can present with undesired behaviors, including significant tantrums.”
Students returning to in-person school this fall have been out of the building and out of their “normal” routines for nearly 6 months. Getting them back in school-mode may be challenging enough if it were not for the coronavirus adding another layer of concern.
Tips for minimizing school anxiety
Dr. Markley outlines several suggestions for readying children who may feel school anxiety to successfully transition back to the classroom.
- Develop a routine and stick to it. Routines are comforting. They help children know what to expect daily and reduce stress. Start the bed routine NOW and do NOT wait for school to start!
- Have a bedtime routine centered around relaxation. A warm shower or bath, picking out their clothes for the next day, reading a story. DON’T allow electronics in the bedroom. They disrupt sleep and keep children awake – and sleep deprivation can significantly worsen anxiety and attitude for anyone.
- “Normalize” anxiety: Let your child know it’s OK to be nervous, and you will do your best to help them through that, but going to school is very important and not something that can be avoided.
- Familiarize them with the environment: If you can, go to the school to see the child’s classroom and meet the teacher prior to the start of the year.
- Peer support. Carpooling with other children or getting to know the other children on the bus will help your child feel like they are not going to school alone.
- Teach your child relaxation techniques. An easy one for children is to blow air out of their mouth (as if they were blowing bubbles) for 3-5 seconds and to repeat the word “calm” in their mind.
- Discuss scenarios. Talk about what they should do if they forget their lunch or lunch money, where each grade sits, and new ways to find someone to play with at recess. Encourage them to participate in activities.
- Inquire about bullying. Teach them to talk to a teacher or a guidance counselor if the teasing crosses a line to give them the tools to handle it. Also, empower them to intervene or tell an adult if they see it happening to someone else.
- Talk to your school’s guidance counselor and/or your child’s teachers to develop an intervention plan if you anticipate your child having difficulty.
- Praise your child when they come home and ask about their day. Show individual attention and reinforcement. Ask to see things they worked on at school and show an interest. Positive attention is a huge motivator!
At what point is school anxiety a medical issue?
Dr. Markley said when the issues begin to interfere with their functioning, it is time to consult your child’s pediatrician. Do not wait until they have missed several days of school, she said.
“With anxiety, the faster you intervene, the better,” said Dr. Markley. “Your child’s pediatrician can help assess the situation and recommend therapy to help your child cope with their feelings.”
Coronavirus and school anxiety
Both parents and children may experience school anxiety as it relates to the coronavirus. What is important to remember, Dr. Markley said, is even though the situation exists, we all have some control over it.
“The seed that grows into anxiety is feeling a lack of control,” she said.
Wearing masks, washing our hands, and staying at a safe distance are measures that can help assure our safety, she said. Reinforce that the school, and you as parents, are making sure that everything is done to prioritize safety.
For more information about helping your child deal with school anxiety, consult your pediatrician or contact Akron Children’s behavioral health counselors at 330-543-5015.