How to Help a Child Who Is Afraid of School

Learn how to help a child who is afraid of school in this Howcast video about child anxiety issues.

I’m going to talk to you about how to help a child who’s afraid of school. Now, the first thing to do is understand what’s normal, and maybe when is the child having problems. We know a preschooler going to school for the first time may show some separation anxiety, and that’s completely normal and even expected, and those teachers know how to handle that. There’s certainly a time when some school kids, when they’re a little older, first or second grade, show anxiety, because they’re much more aware and able to understand that things may be different or they have other kinds of worries on their mind. What’s important to understand is if it’s interfering with what’s going on. If it’s interfering with their ability to attend school, and also if it’s going on too long and it’s not getting better.

The way to help a child who’s anxious about school is plan and predict with them. Talk about what the experience is going to be like. Give them strategy for what to do if they’re feeling a little unsure or unsafe in school. Who do they go to? What should they do? How to help themselves. Go through the day and help them understand and plan ahead for when you will be there. Certainly young children may enjoy having something of you with them, or some kind of comfort object to have with them to make them feel better as a reminder about that safety that is back at home. You also want to enlist the help of the people at the school. They can sometimes be that buffer and that link between you and the child so that that transition time between the hand off and going from you to school can be easier. And that they have ways to integrate that child, take that child and be the comforting object and presence that can make that transition easier for them into school.

The things you don’t want to do is minimize your child’s anxiety. You always want to accept how they feel and understand how they feel. You don’t want to just pat them on the back and say, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay.” It doesn’t necessarily empower them with any strategies. You also don’t want to just rush in and fix it for your child. It’s about helping them learning how to manage and cope with their own anxiety. You also want to make sure that you don’t indulge that child, because once a child stops going to school it can be that much harder to get them back, because then they start to avoid and become afraid to go back. And that’s much harder to help them with. If you start to worry that it’s going on too long or you’re worried that it’s too intense, then you want to make sure to get some professional help for you and your child. When a child is anxious about school and displaying anxiety, you want to be very careful about monitoring your own anxiety, because kids can smell that fear in you, and if you act as if there’s something to be worried about, the child will believe and think that there’s something to be worried about. And they may want to stay with you because they’re worried about themselves or they’re worried about you. So you need to model appropriate and positive, confident behavior for your child.

When you have a child that’s anxious about going to school you always want to make sure, as well, that there isn’t some situation at school that’s making them anxious, and make sure to address that as soon as possible.