Is your child anxious about starting school or heading back to class?
Don’t be alarmed: this is actually normal for most children, according to Dr. Elizabeth Paquette, Chief Psychologist, and Mental Health Lead at the Ottawa Catholic School Board.
In some instances, the parent might be unconsciously conveying their anxiety to their child.
“Even if you’re a bit nervous for your three- or four-year-old to be starting JK or kindergarten, accentuate the positive,” she says. “You might be surprised to find out that your child is actually really excited, so be excited with them.”
She also suggests visiting the school ahead of time and letting your child become familiar with the layout. “Giving your child a sense of control over the situation can really help with those butterfly feelings,” says Paquette, “especially on that first day of school.”
If you suspect it’s more than just butterflies, there are key signs of anxiety to watch for.
“The big thing is a change in behaviour,” says Paquette. “If your child becomes quiet when they’re usually outgoing, or the opposite, and they start acting out, it could be a sign that they are masking their feelings and fears. And outbursts of tears can be an indication that something is bothering them.”
Parents should deal with the problem head-on by reassuring the child that being anxious or having butterflies is normal. Providing them with problem-solving skills and showing them how to deal with situations is valuable as well. And talk to the teacher and school principal to help put in place a proactive solution.
“Sometimes even a ‘you’re doing great’ note in their lunch bag can help reassure your child,” says Paquette. “But always keep that communication going.”
For Simone Oliver, Superintendent of Student Success, and Early Years Lead at the Ottawa Catholic School Board, soothing those back-to-school jitters – especially for junior kindergarten students – starts with building a relationship with the whole family.
“Transitioning to junior kindergarten for the first time can be pretty intimidating,” says Oliver, “and we realize that parents can be anxious as well.”
At the Ottawa Catholic School Board, a school visit is part of the Welcome to Kindergarten program. Children and parents get the opportunity to meet educators, and visit the school. Community partners such as nurses from Ottawa Public Health are invited to be part of this welcoming program, providing information to parents about services in the community. “This really helps them feel more comfortable in transitioning to JK,” she says.
The Catholic board – as well as the public and other boards – also offers a staggered entry for the new JK students to make it less overwhelming, and to give teachers the opportunity to meet each student and their parents individually.
Ottawa mom Tracy Bacenas grew up with parents who were teachers and she saw how much a warm welcome at the classroom door meant to children heading to school for the first time or into a new classroom. She now has twin seven-year-olds and a different perspective on back-to-school butterflies and anxiety.
“I grew up knowing the school system because of my parents,” says Bacenas. “Now I’m seeing it from a parent’s perspective. I get it when you can’t be in the same class as your best friend or you wanted another teacher.”
She emphasizes that parents can be there to make sure best friends get play dates and see each other after school. “Thankfully,” she says, “kids are pretty resilient and most make new friends pretty quickly.”
Meanwhile, Ottawa pediatrician and child health and wellness expert Dr. Paul Roumeliotis says: “By recognizing that school is stressful to most children, parents can continually support their children and keep an open dialogue on any school-related issue with their child.
“Also, children are reassured when they discover that their parents went through school and survived. It’s always a good idea to share your school experiences with them, too!”