school

What kids worry about most as they head back to school, and how you can help. 

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The start of the school year brings excitement, anticipation, nerves. Plus expenses. And stress – for us and our kids.

Children may be returning for more of what they did last year, enjoying the stability of the same school and same friends. Or they might be starting new. It could be Day One of big school, or just Day One of a new school.

As parents, we want to help our children feel comfortable and confident going into the new school year.

So, here are the biggest issues children have at back-to-school time, and how you can help them along.

Who’s who in the zoo?

This one is the big one.

Some children will worry about whether or not they’ll be able to make friends, or that their friends may have ‘forgotten’ them or moved on over the summer holidays. They worry that someone new will come to school and steal their best friend. They are worried that they won’t be in the same class as their best friend. They worry that they might not be allowed to sit with their friends in class because the teacher has some ‘dumb’ seating arrangement.

Friendships are oxygen to our children. They want (and need) a group to belong to. They want to be connected.

It can be tricky, but (if it’s practical) once school is in session, arrange play dates for your younger children or encourage your teens to ring their friends and organise getting together. At a new school you can speak to the staff about after-school activities that might give your child the chance to meet other children that are interested in the same things. Make the effort. Build the relationships.

If you have a child who has additional needs this is often particularly challenging. My recommendation: ask the school for support. Perhaps even ask other parents for support. Every child needs friends. Worry and anxiety drop when friendships flourish.

(As an aside: when we have moved our children to new schools we’ve sent an email to the teacher explaining our situation, offering our contact details, and asking parents to get in touch so our child can meet theirs before school commences. Breaking the ice early helps.)

Know the terrain.

This is a fairly practical one: where is my new classroom? What if I get on the wrong bus? What if my mum isn’t there after school?

Thankfully logistics have practical solutions. You can take your child to school before the first day and walk them through the grounds: find their classroom, the tuckshop, and the bathrooms. You can show them exactly where you’ll be when the bell rings and take them to the bus stop or the train station – or parent pick-up zone if they’re younger or that’s more your style.

Dr Justin Coulson
As a father of six, I've seen these situations over and over again. Image: Supplied.
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The pressure to 'fit in'.

There’s so much pressure on our children when school starts.

If I say this will I be right? Or wrong? What will the other children think? What if I get in trouble? What if I forget someone’s name? Drop the ball? Need to go to the toilet (for younger children)? Get my period? What if my lunch is stinky and people mock me?

Our children want to look right, and they want to fit right. So much anxiety around starting school is built on fear of not quite fitting in and looking like a failure.

Frustratingly, reassurance is usually not so reassuring. Instead, try acknowledging the fears, letting them know it’s normal, and promising you will be there to talk about it when they come home. If they need to hear anything right now, it’s not “you’ll be fine.” It’s “I believe in you. I know it’s hard, but you’ve got this.”

The fear and reality of bullying.

Studies show that one in four Australians school kids have reported being bullied. So, unfortunately, it’s a real back-to-school worry.

With all worries, start by listening to your child. Do their worries revolve around a specific child, or situation? Has it happened before? If the answer to those is yes, then invite the teacher or school leaders into the loop right away to nip any future problems in the bud.

If it’s more general worries, talk about why someone might bully or tease someone else (emphasising that it’s about the bully, not the person being bullied). Role play scenarios and brainstorm reactions. Help them to understand that they can always come to you, or to their teacher, for support.

Who’s the boss?

In the playground, kids talk. They all know who the scary teacher is – the mean one. And they don’t. want. that. teacher. They dread him/her.

If your child is worried, humanise the teacher. Build a positive relationship between yourself, the teacher, and your child. Help your child be a positive contributor in class.

As the school year commences, just be available. Listen to your children. Even if you think their worries are OTT, to them they are important. What might seem like a little worry to you, can be a great big problem for a little child.

Explore. Get curious, not furious. Empathise. And empower them to find a way to step into their worries with courage and resilience.

Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia's leading experts in parenting, relationships and wellbeing. He is a father of six, an author of three books, including 9 Ways To A Resilient Child, and runs the parenting resource website and podcast Happy Families.

Feature image: Getty.

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To celebrate the start of another school year, Nickelodeon is giving back for the Back to School season with a giveaway for the ultimate stash of school supplies! Click here to find out how you could win, plus find free downloadable calendars and organisers that will help get your school year off to a great start!

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