Emily* was often so anxious about returning to school after the holidays, particularly the longer Christmas break, that she would be physically ill.
Her mother Julie* spent most of Emily’s first year coaxing her to go to school. Once inside, Emily, who was diagnosed with separation anxiety as a small child, didn’t want to stay.
Julie, who was also an anxious child, says Emily is now cured of her separation anxiety but still suffers general anxiety and worries about things like being late, having friends in her group and her locker being too far from class.
This year she starts high school and feels anxious about a camp in late February.
What are kids worried about?
For students like Emily and others starting milestone years, such as Prep, Year 7 and Year 12, returning after the holidays can be a nightmare.
Deakin University psychologist and co-creator of the Bounce Back school resilience program, Professor Helen McGrath, says most students are fine but some worry about not having friends, being bullied and whether the work will be harder than last year.
Prof McGrath says some children are naturally shy and reluctant to face the social demands of a new school year, while others, like Emily, have separation anxiety and stress about something happening to a parent when they are apart.
Many first-year primary pupils also worry about finding a friend, whether they can go to the toilet when they need to, teachers liking them and knowing where things are and what to do.
How can you help?
Prof McGrath says primary school teachers can help by taking the child’s hand and encouraging the parent to smile, wave goodbye and walk away without looking back or showing concern.
“If the parent acts in a worried way, then the child may interpret this as evidence that there is some potential danger in separating,” she says. “This type of anxiety often requires professional treatment.”
Children with separation anxiety may be unable to sleep the night before school, not want to leave the house, have tummy pains, cry, refuse to let go of their parent’s hand or stay “safe” by being around the teacher a lot.
Prof McGrath says parents should reassure them and, if they are particularly anxious, speak to the teacher about helping to connect them with other children.
Melbourne author and educator Sharon Witt, whose books include Surviving High School, says Year 7 students often stress about starting at a new school where they know few people.
She says orientation days can help and parents should reassure them without overdoing it and actually walking them into their class – which some do.
“Often it’s the parents who are more anxious than the kids,” she says. “You don’t want to be a helicopter parent.”
Ms Witt says parents should be proactive about genuine concerns, talking to the children and teachers if needed.
“If they do feel anxious, talk to the teachers about it from the start,” she says.
*Amy started high school last year with no primary school friends and the few girls she did know in another class. She made a new friend, only to see her turn against her in term four.
Amy’s mother, Jane*, says Amy wanted to change schools and was anxious about starting Year 8. But Jane has instead encouraged her to join activities such as singing and drama.
“It’s pretty hard when your child seems to be unhappy, but I dealt with it by being matter of fact,” she says.
“I try to be firm but compassionate and it’s hard sometimes to strike the right balance.”
Julie* adds that schools need to be alert to serious anxiety issues, as some people wrongly brand children like Emily naughty.
Julie moved her children to a private school in Grade 5, partly to ease the high school transition, which helped. She says parents should also see a psychologist if the situation impacts on their life.
“You’ve got to get to the bottom of why and what it’s about,” she says.
*Names have been changed
Back to school tips year-by-year
Be positive and stress all the good things that will happen.
Encourage holiday contact with friends to maintain relationships. Highlight last year’s positive experiences and get to know their teacher well in case a problem arises.
Be positive and stress that it might take a few weeks or longer to develop friendships. Encourage them to smile a lot, talk about positive things more than negative, show interest in others and plan interesting conversation topics.
Reassure them that although this will be a demanding year, it will be worth it. Stress that they should work as hard as they can, but it won’t be the end of the world if they don’t do as well as they hope. There are many pathways to success and while ability helps, work and persistence make the biggest difference to their results.