Experts believe parents need to address their children’s anxiety issues instead of brushing them away by saying everything is going to be alright Image Credit: Shutterstock

First one pot then another. Then one set of cutlery next to a small dining plate. Eight-year-old Hannah is engrossed in neatly laying out her newly gifted kitchen playset.

A little later, tired of playing with her kitchen set, Hannah sits down with her crayons and papers doodling and drawing before she proudly takes her art work to show her mother.

The little girl’s positive energy radiates through the house and with her family. However, as the two-month-long summer holiday break is beginning to come to an end and the topic at the dinner table occasionally revolves around getting ready to go back to school, Hannah’s persona transforms completely. Her parents witness signs of an unsettling tension which to them is quite alarming.

It is not uncommon for some children to feel anxious about changing their routine. Fear of separation from family members and environment, fear of bullying, the pressure of schoolwork submission, the stress of exams, sadness due to reduced playtime, or stress of simply coming out from their comfort zone could all leave them anxious about returning to school.

Pratibha Tiwari

Pratibha Tiwari, Abu Dhabi-based author and Peak Performance Coach, agrees. ‘Any transition or change is a bit challenging but once we understand the nuances, through collective efforts, we can transform this into a rewarding experience,’ she says.

‘Regardless of what the reason may be, parents can help ease the acceptance of transition by preparing children to handle it.’

Preparing a mindset towards positive change by initiating conversations around school activities and sharing ideas with your child, is one of the ways to help them understand and visualise its positive side.

It will also help both the parent and the child recognise symptoms of stress, anxiety and fear. If a child shows unusual behaviour or complains that they are not feeling too well, followed by mood swings, this may be a sign of emotional imbalance, says Pratibha. ‘Just remember, that every emotion can be recognised, understood and managed and that is what defines emotional intelligence. By understanding the intention behind that emotion, appropriate strategies can be applied to see the positive side which then resonates into better behaviour from the child.’

A part of life

Nervousness and anxiety are very much a part of life, be it child, youth or adult. ‘We need to teach the child to go through it and this helps them prepare for the future,’ says Dr. Fatima Beena Haider, Educator – Faculty De Montfort University, Dubai. This will help them face future challenges and adversities which may come their way.

Dr. Fatima Beena Haider

She suggests that parents plan their vacation in such a way that they are back at least a week prior to school commencement. ‘This way, the children are mentally prepared and slowly become more comfortable in a familiar environment. For those who have opted for school transport, I would recommend that they still find a way to drop their child to the school for the first few days so that the child is completely into that zone. It is important for children to see their parents interact with the teacher and make them a part of the conversation. This will immensely help in enhancing class behaviour with a lot of calmness and composure.’

Dr. Fatima also has pointers for educationists too. ‘Teachers can make the class homely and keep it fun and interactive for the first week. Make teaching and learning enjoyable where the teachers and students love the subjects and not burdensome. If there are any new students joining in, it will help everyone get more acquainted to each other. The role of the teacher is really important here and they should also encourage the children to share the day’s activities and experiences with their parents. They can be either proactive or reactive. By organising a conducive learning environment, they can get their students to focus on structure, guidance and direction and become a model of optimism and productivity.’

Find a parent in school

Noshin Paracha, UNICEF Master Trainer and Coach, offers some tips to alleviate a child’s concerns. ‘Children need to find a parent in the school. And in order to make this possible, it is best that parents develop a good rapport with their children’s class teacher. This will ensure that automatically, the child feels that the teacher is more approachable and will not be hesitant to go to that teacher for any of their requirements.

Noshin Paracha

Children usually have apprehensions such as: Who will be my new teacher, will she like me, will I have friends in class, who will sit with me during my snack break, what if I can’t understand what is being taught in class, what if I forget to bring my books? Hence, it is vital to address these issues and imbibe a positive attitude towards the school and the teachers.’

Coping Mechanisms Parents can initiate

‘A week or two before school commences, start preparing your child for the upcoming transition by resuming school-year routines, such as setting a realistic bedtime and keeping their uniforms ready,’ says Noshin. Arrange play dates with one or more familiar peers before school starts so that they feel that they have known friends around in school as well.

Drive around the school, highlight positive memories, share good experiences with your child’s teachers, ask your child to help you plan their snack/lunch boxes during the initial week, plan a fun school supplies shopping trip, plan the school day sleep routine, encourage them to be with their friends are all coping mechanisms which can go a long way to ensure that your child’s anxiety considerable diminishes. Try to avoid talking about homework during the initial days. Come up with a prize or a rewarding activity that the child could earn for separating from mom or dad to attend school. Validate the child’s worry by acknowledging that, like any new activity, starting school can be hard but soon becomes easy and fun.’

Fatma Abumahmoud, School Counsellor at GEMS Cambridge International has a few words of advice. ‘As with any fear, facing anxiety about starting school provides many growth opportunities. Children develop skills needed for mastering future transitions, making new friends, and problem-solving, to name a few.’

She suggests the following strategies for taming back-to-school anxiety and helping children find excitement in returning to school:

Prepare: The summer months are the perfect time to lay the groundwork for a successful year. The first week of school is really tough for children, no matter the age. Simply knowing to expect some jitters early on, and even hearing about yours, can be very reassuring.

Identify Specific Fears: Back-to-school anxiety is common, but the worries themselves are as varied as each child. When delving into specific fears, be sure to phrase questions positively to keep the discussion growth-centred. Next, consider some of the most commonly-reported school fears.

Focus on Positives: Once fears are identified and acknowledged, it’s time to focus on reducing them. Simply writing about school fears increases positive emotions and even academic performance. Start by grabbing a piece of paper, and label one side “Worry Thoughts” and the other “Happy Thoughts.” Draw a line down the center of the page. Then, have your child either write or draw each individual fear under the left-hand column. Spend some time brainstorming a variety of positive coping statements on the other side.

Another simple way to shift mindset is by naming all the fun things that happen at school that can’t happen anywhere else. Talk about how access to friends, field trips, recess, and participation in school clubs or after-school activities are part of the deal, says the school counsellor.

Stay Connected: Often, the simplest strategies are the most powerful. Consider adding one of the following acts to your morning routine to maintain the connection with your child all day and soothe worries: Draw reminders on hands (a heart or kiss), give them a worry stone or bead to keep in a pocket and rub when feeling nervous, put your photo in their backpack, place encouraging notes or messages in their lunch box.

Even more importantly, be sure to carve out a regular time and place to talk as the school year begins. A family meeting time, complete with your undivided attention, means that your connection will be sustained and strengthened during all the challenges of the coming year.

What not to do

First and foremost, do not try to brush away the child’s fears. Telling the child that everything is going to be alright, will not really solve the anxiousness, say experts. Avoid comparing your child with other children who do not feel anxious going back to school. Refrain from making any negative comments about the child’s school or the teacher. Give your child space and time to sort out their own issues. Do not show your frustration at the child as it will only make matters worse. Remaining calm, composed and organised will ensure that you do not relay your anxiety to your child.

Yet, if none of the above help and if the pattern continues to persist, it is important to investigate the cause of their anxiety. A child who is bullied may be afraid to go back to school as their tormenters are around. A child with OCD may be finding it difficult to manage their anxiety. Those with separation anxiety may be afraid to be far away from their mother.

However, should the child still show distress after a month and if you sense that the anxiety is only getting worse, it may be time to reach out to a psychologist or psychiatrist for a proper evaluation. A mental health professional can guide parents in understanding the child better and help the family in resolving key matters. cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps teach the child and parent skills to address and confront anxieties.

Anxiety in Parents

Parents too have their shares of anxiety but it is important not to pass on this contagion effect to the children. Accept that your child is unique. Don’t compare your child with others just as how you cannot compare yourself with someone else. Reach out and socialise with other parents of the same school. Most importantly, think positive. Increase your communication with all who are concerned – the teachers, other parents, with your own child and enjoy family time together.

Parents may experience their child exhibiting nervousness about sudden changes result in tantrums from the children, difficulty in interacting with family members and friends, symptoms such as fatigue.

By constantly comparing our child to other children, we increase his anxiety and stress levels. Children want to please their parents and not being able to do so can make them anxious. It can lower their self-esteem when they start to believe that everybody is better than they are.

Way Forward

Overall, the parents and teachers must work as team and create a positive learning environment for the child. Communication too is key as this will encourage sharing of experiences and increase future learnings for both the parents and the institution.

Each day is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean by encouraging the child in different realms towards genuine eagerness and success.

Nargish Khambatta

Nargish Khambatta, Principal and CEO of GEMS Modern Academy and Vice President – Education, has a few words of advice: ‘I often tell new parents, instead of being anxious about your child joining a new school, guide her into thinking towards how she can find opportunities to display her core strengths and explore her interests.’

The educator says applying positive psychology in education is about trying to re-orient your thinking.

‘As educators, instead of getting busy with repairing the worst aspects, we must invest our collective energies towards developing the best qualities in children. That is truly what is going to hold the child in good stead in the future,’ she adds.