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Recognizing and Managing Back-to-School Anxiety

What Is “Back-to-School Anxiety”?

Kids and teens might simply have anxious personalities; they may experience intermittent anxiety, or they may even have an anxiety disorder. But back-to-school anxiety can be its very own issue: anxiety specifically about returning to school. This type of anxiety can occur in kids with no history of anxiety concerns.

What Can Cause It?

Here are a just a few sources of back-to-school anxiety:

  • Separating from parents
  • A shift in routine/learning new routines
  • New transitions: e.g., riding with parents to now riding a bus
  • Moving to a new community
  • Starting a new school in the same community
  • Transition years: e.g., starting Kindergarten, shifting from 5th grade to middle school, 8th to 9th grade, etc.
  • Concern over whether or not established friends will be in the same class
  • Shifting social groups
  • Shifting extracurricular activities—not having the same peers on teams or in clubs
  • Concerns about meeting parent and teacher academic expectations
  • Navigating loud, crowded school hallways
  • Navigating the cafeteria
  • Navigating recess activities or free periods
  • Navigating puberty, especially visible changes in a child’s body they may be self-conscious about
  • Changes in child’s academic support system
  • Concern that a teacher or principal will not believe or support students with learning differences/disabilities
  • Concerns about performing in the context of learning differences/disabilities
  • Concerns about facing mean kids or bullies from a prior year

What Helps Ease the Anxiety?


It’s natural for kids to be excited to see their friends and resume a predictable routine which schools typically provide. But it’s also natural for kids to feel some level of back-to-school anxiety. Listen without an agenda or a desire to problem solve. Resist the impulse to dismiss or diminish the fears your kid is expressing. Avoid statements like, “Everything will be fine, you have nothing to worry about!”

Listening and acknowledging will help a kid feel heard and understood, as well as allow them to safely process their fears out loud and potentially brainstorm their own ideas about how they may want to handle their worries. Another useful tool is to ask your child directly if they would prefer you to just listen, give advice, or get involved.

If a kid is stuck repeating the same worries over and over, prompt with open ended questions like, “How do you think you might want to handle that?” or “If you weren’t afraid, what would you do?” or “How have you handled that in the past—what has worked?” Also, validate the concern and worry without reinforcing it, like, “That does sound hard” and “I hear you.” Kids will often continue talking if they are uninterrupted and feel heard and understood.

Watch Your Own Language and Attitude

Kids follow their caregiver’s lead. Kids learn from their parents how to interpret new and uncertain situations. Research has shown that children of anxious parents are more likely to exhibit anxiety themselves. In fact, when parents are anxious, children don’t simply sense it, but the stress can trickle down and become internalized in the child or teen. So, if a parent seems persistently anxious or fearful, a child may perceive that life in general is challenging or even unsafe.

Caregivers often communicate school-specific worries and anxieties to their kids. Adults may talk about their difficulties in school, or in certain subjects, from their own childhood. This can heighten a child’s anxiety. Or parents may make complaints and judgements about schools and teachers in front of their children. This undermines the child’s ability to trust the school environment or their teachers.

Use affirming language and communicate confidence in your child or teen and in your family’s ability to navigate difficulty when it arises. Think about and discuss internal and external support and resources you can use when needed. Remind your child or teen that they are not alone and that you will provide support when necessary and appropriate.

Develop a calm and neutral attitude so your child may lean on you when they need to, without believing they will somehow worry you. Learn how to model coping with stressful situations. If necessary, seek out therapy for yourself to address persistent or insistent anxiety of your own.

Get Practical: For Younger Children

Resume School Routines

A week or two before school, start preparing for the back-to-school transition by resuming school-year routines, such as a consistent bedtime, thinking about what kids might want or need for school lunches, selecting tomorrow’s clothes, and establishing a routine for shoe, lunch, or backpack placement.

Meet Friends

If possible, arrange playdates with classmates or school friends before school starts. Research shows that when there is a known peer or friend during school transition, it may improve a child’s emotional adjustment.

Learn the School Campus

Drive to school before the school year begins. Rehearse the drop-off routine and spend time on the playground or inside the classroom if the building is open. Locate the child’s classroom, bathroom, cafeteria, and playground prior to the start of the year. Have your child practice walking up to the school or classroom door and waving goodbye while you wait outside or down the hall.

Meet the Teacher

If possible, introduce your child to their new teacher and let them practice staying in the classroom with their teacher while you walk down the hall to the bathroom or office. Opportunities for exposure and repetition will ease anxiety, but also try to avoid overdoing and over discussing rehearsals. Simply normalize and practice the changes.

Plan an After-School Routine

Discuss your after-school routine. That routine might look like this: arrive home, hugs and kisses if a parent or guardian is available, put lunch box and other items away, eat a snack, complete homework, then play with friends or have TV/screen time if allowed.

Ask for Staff Support

If you believe your child will need additional support on the first day or week, reach out to their teacher, teacher’s aide, school counselor, school nurse, or the administration. Communicate that your child is excited but also nervous and may need some help transitioning. Ask what is possible. School staff are experts and have successfully assisted other students with anxiety, so trust that they can assist effectively, and ask for their ideas as well.

Arrange a Classroom Handoff

It may be possible to arrange for a handoff at the classroom door, including something to engage the child, like a job the child can do when they enter the classroom or a buddy the child can sit with to get the day started. Giving a child a task or purpose helps build confidence and assists their focus on transitioning to the classroom environment.

Validate Your Child’s Worries

Remember to validate the child’s worry by acknowledging that, like any new activity, starting school can be hard but will soon be easy and fun. Remember, too, that children typically recover quickly once a caregiver leaves the school.

Get Practical: For Older Kids and Teens

Use the relevant techniques from above, along with these helpful tips:

Schedule Family Meetings

Schedule a family meeting (or two!) to discuss issues such as balancing academics with sports, work, social activities, transportation to and from school—including fears or issues regarding carpooling or driving to school on their own; rules and consequences related to phone, computer, and technology usage; expectations regarding homework, tutoring, or grades; curfew; and your expectations on knowing where your kid will be and what they will be doing.

Discuss Changes to Your Routines

Discuss any after school routine changes, especially if your older child or teen is newly working or in competitive sports, arts, or cultural programs. What will change from the setup you had when they were younger? Be very clear and open about guidelines and rules regarding phones, social media, and screen time.

What Is School Refusal?

Sometimes back-to-school anxiety isn’t just back-to-school anxiety. Sometimes, it is the beginning of recognizing there is something more going on. Of particular concern is a child developing what is called “school refusal.” School refusal is a persistent pattern of avoiding getting ready for school, arriving late, asking to leave early, refusing school completely, or having persistent stomachaches and headaches with no known cause which mainly seem to appear on or before school days.

Many kids resist going to school every now and then. But school refusal is an extreme behavior associated with high levels of resistance to school, high levels of distress, and negative and frequent effects on kids’ social and academic lives as well as the lives of their families.

What Helps Ease School Refusal?

Sometimes, the most important thing a parent can do when kids are refusing school is to send the child to school anyway. This may be challenging, but if we allow children to avoid difficult situations or experiences that make them anxious, we may reinforce that those situations are scary or dangerous. Of course, we also want to encourage our kids with compassion, understanding, support, and a belief in the child’s ability to manage rather than dismissing their fears. But sometimes we need to loan kids our confidence in their abilities until they have their own.

When to Seek Professional Help

Anxiety disorders in children and teenagers are increasingly common. Studies have recently shown that an ever-increasing number of American teens suffer from an an anxiety disorder at some point, and younger children’s rates of anxiety have grown as well. A certain amount of school-related anxiety is common for all kids. But when that worry doesn’t go away or crosses over into full-fledged anxiety or panic attacks in school, kids need extra support. Parents need to know how to recognize the difference between an anxiety disorder and common levels of anxiety in school and should be unafraid to reach out to their providers for support.

If a child’s resistance to school is overwhelming for the child and family, and if it is prolonged, they should be evaluated by a doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible. A professional screening for extreme avoidance behavior and school refusal may uncover a medical issue, an undiagnosed learning disorder, an undiagnosed mental health issue, a child who is being bullied or harassed, or another issue a child may not know how to articulate with their parents and caregivers.

It is much better to seek help early given that the longer a child goes without support and treatment, the deeper the anxiety can go.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Finally, as stated above, there are different types of anxiety issues and disorders. Many share a common set of symptoms. If you or a child you know consistently and persistently experiences any of the following symptoms, please reach out for support and an expert assessment as soon as possible:

  • School refusal
  • Excessive anxiety or worry that is difficult to control
  • Persistent, intense fear or anxiety about specific social situations because you believe you may be judged negatively, embarrassed, or humiliated
  • Avoidance of anxiety-producing social situations or enduring them with intense fear or anxiety
  • Excessive anxiety that’s out of proportion to the situation
  • Anxiety or distress that interferes with your daily living
  • Fear or anxiety that is not better explained by a medical condition, medication, or substance abuse
  • Clinically significant mental or physical distress
  • Impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning
  • Excessive irritability with no known cause
  • High levels of muscle tension
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Withdrawing from social interactions
  • Trouble sleeping at night—either falling asleep, staying asleep, or both
  • Frequent fatigue during the day
  • Loss of appetite and other changes in eating habits
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Performance dip in school, poor report cards, poor testing results
  • Frequent unexplained physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches
  • Feelings of hopelessness, despair, and worthlessness
  • Using drugs and drinking as forms of self-medication for anxiety
  • Avoiding people, places, and things that trigger anxious feelings

It’s very important to note that most of us experience some or all of these symptoms throughout our lives, but we don’t necessarily need to take action with a professional unless and until we want to or the symptoms interfere with our activities of daily living such as school, work, relationships, hygiene, etc.

Read More from the Author

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Christine Babinec, MA, LPC, NCC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and National Board Certified Counselor currently practicing in Portland, OR, USA. Her work is rooted in social justice, and Chris has devoted her career to working with survivors of trauma and abuse. Chris is also the mom of two growing kids! Visit her website at christinebabineclpc.com.


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