October 26, 2021

Back to School – Again!

Supporting children in navigating school anxiety, now that the excitement of a new school year is over

It can be such a common scene; parent arrives at the school gate with a child clinging to their legs like it’s a life raft on a sinking ship. Parent prises the child off them, hands the screaming child over to the teachers and walks away, desperately trying to hold back their own tears until they reach the car. Or maybe your child isn’t as publicly demonstrative. Maybe they struggle to sleep at night or wake through the night asking you to stay close. Perhaps they cry to you about being at school, or maybe just protest as they are bundled into the car in the morning.

If this is an experience you can relate to, or something you find similarities with, you are not alone. Some form of school related separation anxiety is very normal at some stage throughout your child’s school life. If you manage to avoid it, you are classed amongst those mythical parents whose children slept through the night from 6 weeks, or who never experienced any sort of toddler related tantrum.

Knowing it is common is comforting, but it doesn’t do much to alleviate our own pain and anxiety when we watch our children suffer. Covid related lockdowns might have set your child back in terms of their ease at separating at the school gates. Now that the buzz and excitement of the first half of term is over, is your child becoming reluctant to go to school? Are old anxieties creeping back and are you beginning to dread Monday morning drop offs yourself?

At Role Models, we are passionate about supporting both children and parents with navigating the complexities of everyday life. Whether it is separating at the school gate, believing in their own abilities, or navigating social dynamics, there are so many ways in which children require (and deserve) meaningful support. If they were struggling in maths, we would intervene, therefore, if they are struggling emotionally, we should step in and support with the same urgency. Role Models has a variety of online and in- person interactive courses aimed at supporting your child in developing confidence, understanding their emptions, developing emotional literacy and other key life skills.

So, what can you do to support?

You might drop your child off at the school gate and run to start the rest of your day as though you are competing in an Olympic sprint, however the worry of whether your child is coping sits in your stomach like a lead balloon. Your child doesn’t need to suffer, and neither do you!

Encourage your child to talk about their feelings

This is often done best before they’re in the thick of their panic ‘Fight or Flight’ mode. Take time to discuss their feelings. There is a myth that as parents we need to solve all our child’s problems. Truthfully, feelings of anxiety and fear are inevitable. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to help our children tolerate their big feelings. Remind them that they are normal, reassure them that you are listening and validate what they are saying. They will be more open to hearing what you have to say if they don’t feel as though they need to work hard to make you see how they are feeling. Listen if the child wants to talk, “without trying to talk the child out of their feelings,” says Dr. Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids.” Let children know that even if they are nervous, they can face their fears with your support.

Divide and conquer

When we experience fear or anxiety, we will disproportionately focus on what worries us. For children they might not even understand what it is that they are worried about. Take time to talk to your child about parts of the day they may not enjoy or may even fear, but then take time to identify parts of school life they enjoy. It may be that lunch time worries them because it is in a loud school hall, or they don’t enjoy school lunches. Listen to them, validate their feeling and problem solve. Maybe you can look at the school menu together in advance and talk through options of what they might pick. Once you’ve done this, ask your child to identify what they do enjoy about school. You may even choose to write this all down, so when your child begins to worry, they can also look at a realistic picture of the day and not focus solely on their worries.

Introduce them to some self-calming strategies

This may include deep breathing, counting, holding an object that provides comfort. At Role Models, we are passionate about arming our children with tools that they can access at their disposal. For that reason, each of our online and offline sessions incorporates a wellbeing or mindfulness section. We have written a blog on exactly how Mindfulness can support your child in managing their emotions and have included some useful resources. Learning to quieten our minds and connect with our bodies is a valuable life skill that is best introduced when children are young.

Create a morning routine to provide structure and comfort

Sometimes when our child experiences ‘big’ emotions, the whole family can become engrossed in it and it can cause chaos at home. Create a goodbye routine for your child. It may be a special handshake, cuddle or even identify something you can do after school together to look forward to. Don’t linger at the school gates either. Let them know that when you say goodbye, you will leave. The more they feel as though their extreme emotions will call you back, the longer their outpouring of emotions may last.

Talk to the school

If your child’s reluctance to go to school persists, speak to the teacher. Hear from them how your child is during they day. Quite often, children show their parents their ‘big’ emotions, but contain them during they day. It might reassure you to hear that despite their Oscar worthy meltdowns, they are actually very happy in school. However, if this is not the case, work with the school to develop an age-appropriate strategy. Maybe your child can be given a ‘job’ to do first thing, like handing out the pencils. Or perhaps the teacher can talk to your child and reassure them that they can touch base during the day if your child is feeling anxious.

As with most aspects of parenting, school reluctance and separation anxiety are often a phase. If you believe there is something more concerning happening, speak to your GP, who may signpost you to another service for support.

A huge part of separation anxiety is confidence. Confidence to believe in themselves that they can cope without you by their side. At Role Models, we passionately believe that giving children self-confidence and self-belief is fundamental to their emotional wellbeing, but also provides the foundations that they need to survive. As a result, we have both online and offline courses on the theme of Confidence for children between the ages of 3½ and 13. The outstanding reviews we receive from children, parents and teachers motivates us to continue to work with parents and children to enable them to thrive.

This article was written by Laura Kay , Character Education Team Manager at Role Models. Laura has over 12 years teaching experience and has trained in Psychodynamic Therapy.