How Can I Help My Child Cope With Anxiety About Going Back to School?

My son is anxious about going back to school, and the closer we get to the first day back, the worse it gets. He’s been acting out and throwing tantrums, saying he refuses to go. What can I do?

Going back to school can be a stressful time for both parents and children. Starting a new school year can make kids nervous, especially if there will be changes from the previous year, such as a new school, new teachers or new peers.

If your child seems very distressed about going back, here are some things to discuss with him. Find a time when he is relatively calm to have these talks. (Avoid times like when he’s upset or getting ready for school.)

“Let’s think of some ways I can help make the transition back to school easier for you.” Start the brainstorming by suggesting a few simple things, such as packing a special snack or walking him to his classroom on the first few days. But make clear that you will not honor requests to let him stay home from school.

“What do you enjoy about school?” Talk to him about the good memories he has from previous years. Highlight these positive moments and use them to remind him about his successes and how school can be rewarding and fun.

“Is there anything in particular about this school year that’s worrying you?” Is he anxious about keeping up with his classmates? Getting along with teachers? Making friends? Getting bullied? These are common fears among kids with learning and attention issues. Talking about your child’s specific concerns can help you find specific solutions.

When your child throws a tantrum about going back to school, it’s very important for you to stay calm and avoid getting angry or upset. This can be hard to do. But keep in mind that tantrums are an attention-seeking behavior. So do your best to ignore the tantrum, and praise your child when he starts to use good behavior again.

After your child calms down, ask him to let you know when he’s ready to talk about why he was upset.

The best way to avoid and deal with back-to-school anxiety is to take steps to ease your child’s concerns about the new year. Here are some ways to help you both get ready for school:

Project a sense of confidence and understanding. You can be a great advocate for your child. Let him know you realize he is anxious about the school year, but that you believe in him and are confident that things will go well.

Practice morning and evening routines. A few weeks before school begins, start the transition to your school-year schedule, including times for waking up, going to bed and having meals.

Plan extra time to get out the door in the morning. This is especially important for the first few days of school. This will give you time to deal with tantrums or other avoidance tactics without your child being late for class.

Get everything in order in advance. Make sure your child has all the school supplies he’ll need for the new year. Try to get his class schedule in advance. Go to school together before the first day and locate his locker and classrooms.

Give your child some choices. Letting him choose what clothes to wear or breakfast to have or a favorite color for his ring binder can provide a sense of control and excitement about school.

Reach out to other parents and peers for support. Try to set up a playdate for your child and one of his classmates before school starts. Talking to other parents about their own back-to-school struggles and successes can often be helpful as well.

It’s very common for kids to worry about going back to school. But it’s also possible that other things could be concerning your child. Here are a few key questions to consider:

  • Has anything else happened recently that could be contributing to your child’s behavior? This could include the loss or illness of a family member or a fight with a close friend.
  • Is he getting enough sleep and eating well?
  • Does he seem to struggle with separation from you at other times? For example, if he’s left at home with a babysitter? Has he been throwing tantrums for other reasons?

Talking to your child and taking steps to ease his concerns may smooth the transition back to school. But if these strategies don’t seem to help and the tantrums continue or get worse, you may want to seek emotional help for your child. Taking notes about your child’s behavior can help later on if you need to reach out to a mental health counselor.


This Understood.org article was written by John Piacentini, a professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support (CARES) Center.