Help and Adviceschool anxiety

School anxiety is an incredibly, difficult and frustrating issue for parents and children alike. For children, they face a daily struggle, which is an awful experience, and is distressing for parents to watch. It is completely normal for children to feel anxious or worried about school from time to time, particularly when big changes are happening, like starting a new year, however, when this stress persists for longer periods, school anxiety can be very disabling, so much so that it prevents children from attending school.

We know that going to school not only enables a child to learn, but also gives them access to the support of a community, provides a sense of achievement, new experiences, broadens their opinions, worldview and perspective, and perhaps most importantly, helps them to build friendships, all of which aid self-esteem. Experiencing school anxiety is a barrier to accessing these benefits, and though tricky to get to the bottom of, it can be remedied. The longer school anxiety persists, the more difficult it is to re-establish your child’s routine and confidence, so it is important to recognise and treat school anxiety as early as possible. In this blog, we’re going to cover what school anxiety is, common signs and symptoms, why children might have school anxiety and how to help a child with school anxiety.

What is School Anxiety?

Put simply, school anxiety is when a child feels persistent worry, nervousness, fear or distress about school. When the idea of school causes a child severe distress, it can also result in reluctance or refusal to go to school, known as school refusal, or emotionally-based school avoidance (EBSA). As both of these stem from anxiety, school anxiety is the term we will be using.

It is an important distinction to make that school anxiety preventing a child from going to school is not a choice; it is a case of ‘can’t’ not ‘won’t’. Anxiety is a physiological response from the brain to a perceived threat or danger. That we rationally understand school to be safe is irrelevant, as many kids who experience school anxiety know that school isn’t dangerous, but they can’t control their body’s anxiety response.

What are the Signs that a Child is Experiencing School Anxiety?

School anxiety can manifest in many different ways, from the obvious to the more obscure. Here are some signs to look out for that your child might exhibit when they are anxious about school:

  • Being reluctant or refusing to go to school
  • Frequent tummy aches, nausea, headaches or feeling sick
  • Not wanting to get up and get ready
  • Excessive worry about small issues, like whether they have the correct equipment for school or if they’ve done their homework properly
  • Being reluctant or refusing to do school work
  • Struggling with school work or grades dropping
  • Crying or tantrums about getting ready or going to school
  • Trying to delay going to school, for example, by hiding, saying they are hungry and need a snack or they have to use the bathroom before you leave
  • Being withdrawn or seeming quiet and down at school or at home
  • Acting out, such as getting uncharacteristically upset or angry at school or at home
  • Struggling to pay attention at school
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite

Why do Children Experience School Anxiety?

Children experience school anxiety for a multitude of reasons, such as:

  • Separation anxiety – particularly in younger children, they may be worried or frightened about being separated from their parents or caregivers, which happens when they go to school
  • Social anxiety – school is full of social interactions, so children with social anxiety often have anxiety about school
  • If they’ve been absent for an extended period of time, such as if they were ill, they might be anxious about going back to school when they were not before
  • Finding their school work difficult, or not being able to keep up in class
  • Getting in trouble, for example for misbehaving, not being able to concentrate or not being able to understand the work
  • Feeling pressure to perform well or get good grades
  • Being anxious about tests or exams, or being worried they won’t do well
  • Struggling with friendships, or feeling like they don’t fit in
  • Not getting along with teachers
  • Not having adequate support for a learning disability, like dyslexia or ADHD, or mental health condition, like depression
  • Having low self-esteem or not feeling good enough
  • Being bullied or witnessing others be bullied

How to help a Child with School Anxiety

Make sure they aren’t having problems at school

First and foremost, ensure there isn’t something amiss at school. Being bullied, struggling to make friends, getting in trouble frequently in class and not coping with their school work are some of the most common culprits of school anxiety in children. Your child might be embarrassed or scared to tell you that they are struggling, so check in often, particularly if you notice changes in their behaviour, or the signs of school anxiety we mentioned above. You can also speak to your child’s teacher, as they may be able to provide insight on anything that has changed at school or with your child.

Explain to them what’s going on in a language they can understand

The first step to managing school anxiety is to acknowledge what’s going on, and make sure your child knows too. The physical and emotional feelings associated with anxiety are unpleasant, and can be scary, especially for a child. Explaining to them that sometimes their brain is overprotective, and triggers the fight of flight response when they are not actually in danger (like when going to school) is helpful for them to understand. Psychologist Karen Young has a comprehensive article which goes in depth about how to explain anxiety to children, you might like to have a read here.

Establish a consistent routine

Having a consistent routine is immensely valuable for kids, especially if they are experiencing school anxiety. Preparation and predictability are key to managing anxiety, so having a routine that is the same each morning can help to settle them before school. Being tired exacerbates anxiety, and makes difficult emotions harder to cope with, so other important aspects of preparation to handle school anxiety include having a good sleep schedule to ensure they are well rested and making sure they are eating well to give them energy to tackle the day.

Talk to them about their fears, and set up ways to manage them

Talking through what exactly your child is nervous about and putting strategies in place to manage their fears is instrumental in increasing their comfort level at school. For example, if your child is nervous about getting called on in class to respond to a question they don’t know the answer to, have a conversation with their teacher to organise that the child will only be asked to answer the question if they raise their hand. This enables them to be less anxious in class, as the ‘threat’ of being asked a question they do not know the answer to has been removed.

Therapy or counselling

Sometimes children’s school anxiety is too severe to be managed to home, and professional help is needed. Therapy or counselling with a psychologist, occupational therapist or social worker can be life changing for children with school anxiety and help them to be able to participate without distress. Talk to your child’s GP or paediatrician to get a referral for specialist services.

Hope Tutoring can help your child, we specialise in providing learning difficulties help for children across many areas including kids on the autism spectrum, those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, reading difficulties and slow processing speed to mention just a few. Contact us today if you are looking for a tutor in Brisbane or remote tutoring.