How to Cure Back to School Anxiety For Parents and Kids
Avoid drama, tension, or fighting when you use these simple tips.
Posted Aug 12, 2018
For many parents and some students, the return to school is perhaps the most wonderful time of the year. Those who enjoy rising at 6:00 am, eating boxed lunches, and doing monotonous homework look forward to the school year because they crave a fresh start, relish the opportunity to learn new things, and anticipate connecting with old friends or making new ones. However, not everyone loves school! For those who despise the school experience, starting the new academic year can be a source of incomparable stress that triggers anxiety, frustration, and even fear.
The first step toward curing academic tension and the inevitable emotions of boredom, apathy, anger, or irritability is awareness of what may cause the anxiety in the first place. Unfortunately, humans are notoriously bad at accurately identifying their true motives and explaining why they prefer to avoid certain environments. If you hear comments from kids such as “school is stupid,” “we never learn anything” and “the teacher doesn’t like me” it is possible these remarks are smokes screens designed to psychologically insulate the student from what they anticipate might happen when school begins. However, as a parent there are at least five concrete steps that you can take to avoid a potentially negative school experience (and nine months of aggravation and fighting with the kids).
Create an end of summer routine
One delightful aspect of summer life is tranquility. Alarm clocks are off, parents are dreaming of vacation, and the thought of deadlines is a distant memory. The dog days of August minimally promote relaxation, a state of mind that is radically different than what is needed for success during the school year. However, one of the most important aspects of success for adults and children alike is structure and routine. Research reveals that students who prepare in advance for the challenges of school have more positive emotions about school and perform better academically (Struthers, Perry, & Menec, 2000). You can create a proxy routine by scheduling leisure activities according to certain times, offering kids the opportunity to journal the highlights of a summer vacation, or have them make to-do lists. These techniques promote a mindset of consistency and structure which can easily be transitioned into the mechanized rigors of the school year.
Set reasonable expectations
One of the most common drivers of student stress is the perceived inability to meet the expectations of parents and teachers (Englund, Luckner, Whaley, & Egeland, 2004). When children (or adults) believe they lack intellectual horsepower to be successful they often put forth less effort and become resistant to academic challenges. While it is crucial for parents to provide academic support and encourage educational interest, setting unrealistic learning goals like earning straight A’s or getting a perfect test score can backfire. Students often mistakenly believe that they should master course content almost immediately. Parents who remind kids that learning new material takes time and effort will ease academic tension. Students need to believe that it is okay to allow themselves to learn – and fail- and should be commended for having the courage to admit when they don’t know something.
Avoid comparisons to others
One reason students may dread the return to school is because they feel inferior when comparing themselves to others. Points of comparison set the boundaries for our goals and behaviors. Often kids will compare themselves to smarter or more popular classmates and feel inferior, which in turn promotes social anxiety. Conversely, downward comparisons can result in the student feeling better about themselves, but gives the learner a false sense of academic superiority. Regardless of the type of comparison, when we set goals and targets in comparison to others we may still come up short. Parents can help their student by encouraging comparisons to one’s own past performance. When kids realize that they have improved from prior years they will feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, which in turn will help them associate school with positive emotions rather than frustration or failure.
Accentuate the positive
Let’s face it, for many returning to school means getting up early, effortful concentration, and less discretionary time for the activities we prefer to do. However, school also provides opportunities that may not exist during the summer. The return to school often means more access to friends and socialization, the ability to participate and attend school clubs and athletic events, field trips, and yes, even the opportunity to learn new things. Neurological research reveals that the acquisition of new skills and abilities gives our brain a similar sensation as the one we experience when we win money and receive rewards (Mizuno, Tanaka, Ishii, et al., 2008). Thus, parents have a prime opportunity to shift student mindset toward a focus on the benefits of school, which may or may not include academics. If a student believes that there is some practical benefit from school engagement, their motivation to enthusiastically attend school should be measurably increased.
Provide emotional and academic support
Contrary to some popular beliefs, success in school is NOT an individualized effort where the student takes exclusive responsibility for their own results (De Bruyckere & Hulshof, 2015). Achievement is a three-way effort that is most successful when parents, teachers, and students share involvement and mutually commit to student learning outcomes. Commitment begins with encouragement, but also includes modeling positive behaviors (like reading books and helping with homework when necessary). Parents should avoid constantly judging learning outcomes (grades) or belittling the learner for questionable effort and lack of academic interest. When I wrote my motivation textbook, I interviewed celebrities in various careers and identified one common success theme. Regardless if they were famous politicians, entrepreneurs, athletes, or performers—every superstar had a coach who gave them realistic and supportive feedback that helped them develop skills and reach their potential. No one achieved success on their own! Consider being a coach first, and a parent second, as the best remedy to make the transition from summer to school a reason for everyone to celebrate!
De Bruyckere, P., & Hulshof, C. (2015). Urban myths about learning and education. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Englund, M. M., Luckner, A. E., Whaley, G. J., & Egeland, B. (2004). Children's achievement in early elementary school: Longitudinal effects of parental involvement, expectations, and quality of assistance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(4), 723-730.
Mizuno, K., Tanaka, M., Ishii, A., Tanabe, H. C., Onoe, H., Sadato, N., et al. (2008). The neural basis of academic achievement motivation. NeuroImage, 42(1), 369–378.
Struthers, C. W., Perry, R. P., & Menec, V. H. (2000). An examination of the relationship among academic stress, coping, motivation, and performance in college. Research in Higher Education, 41 (5), 581-592.