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Talking to Children About Their School Anxiety

FOR AGES: Five to 13

Most children experience some fears and anxiety as each new school year begins. They worry they won't be able to read fast enough, and fret that older, popular kids will think they're geeks.

Your children may be silent about their back-to-school fears, but that doesn't mean they're anxiety-free. Kids may be reluctant to share with you their thoughts of impending confusion and embarrassment. A supportive family conversation about these feelings can be reassuring. Here are some words to help your kids through four particularly difficult transitions.


The Words: "Have you been thinking about what you're going to learn in kindergarten?"

The Reason: Kids about to enter kindergarten often have unrealistic expectations about what they'll need to learn right away. And your child may also be discouraged to find that some of his new classmates' skills are more advanced than his.

Describe to your child what he'll learn in kindergarten, and explain that no one expects him to learn it all over night. Your child's realistic expectations about kindergarten will help prevent initial disappointment and stress.

The Words: "Have any other older kids told you about what kindergarten is like?"

The Reason: Older kids sometimes delight in telling frightening kindergarten stories to younger children. These kindergarten veterans speak with the voice of authority and may say things like: "They don't ever let you go to the bathroom!" and "You've got Mrs. Peterson? She expects everybody to know how to read on the first day of school."

You can use these "war stories" as a springboard to offer a kinder, more realistic picture of kindergarten.


The Words: "Have you been wondering if Miss McCarthy will be a nice teacher?"

The Reason: Your soon-to-be first grader now has a frame of reference to compare teachers. Based on his relationship with his kindergarten teacher, your child is either hoping for someone just like her or her total opposite. Relate any positive interactions that you and your acquaintances have had with this teacher: "I've seen her playing with her dog in the park, and she seems energetic and friendly," or "Jimmy's mom said Miss McCarthy was always kind to him and helped him do his best."

The Words: "Would you like to go over with some of your friends and play on the school playground?"

The Reason: Give your child a chance to play and enjoy herself on her first-grade playground. When she goes out on the playground on the first day of school, she'll bring that familiarity with her. A happy memory can help balance the uncertainty she's carrying.


The Words: "What worries your friends most about starting middle school?

The Reason: At this age and stage of her development, asking about your new middler's friends' anxieties, instead of her own, may be the best way to open up discussion. She'll indirectly work her own concerns into her responses, and may disguise her own worries as her friends'.

She's most likely heard tales about fighting in the corridors and kids being locked in their lockers. Going to school with older, bigger teens is a frightening experience for most fifth, sixth, and seventh graders. Don't dismiss your kid's fears -- they're probably based more on fact than fiction. Troubleshooting how her "friends" can feel safer in this new, intimidating world can provide her with much needed reassurance and support.

The Words: "Have you worked out a backup plan if you forget your locker combination?"

The Reason: According to student surveys conducted by the National Council of Middle Schools, locked lockers are new middlers' biggest fear. Kids are very anxious about feeling humiliated in front of upperclassmen as they struggle to open their lockers. Have your kids practice using a combination lock at home, and brainstorm two different backup places to store their written combination and lock instructions.


The Words: "What do you think it's going to be like being the new kid in school?"

The Reason: An open-ended question like this may elicit responses ranging from anger at you for making her move to a "no sweat" false bravado attitude. If she's successfully negotiated this transition before, remind her of that accomplishment.

If you've moved during the summer vacation months, there's more time for her anticipatory anxiety to build -- imagining the worst. Be aware that her behavior may be rather erratic during "the wait."

Most educational psychologists recommend moving during the school year because it eliminates this dreaded summer wait, while offering the child an immediate opportunity to assume her familiar role as student and to make friends at her new school.

The Words: "I'm going to call the principal to see if they have a buddy system for new students. Is that OK with you?"

The Reason: Although your older kids may appear disinterested and cool to the idea of an assigned buddy during the first week or so of school, they'll welcome your efforts in this area. A friendly, classmate who can show them the ropes and make some social introductions can be a true lifesaver to the "new kid."

Read Carleton Kendrick's bio.

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