Managing Back to School Stress
Summer is over, and it’s time to return to the classroom. Going back to school after summer break can be exciting but also fraught with uncertainties, challenges, and anxiety – the effects of which can last a lifetime. Knowing the signs and what parents, caregivers, and educators can do to address young people’s concerns about returning to school is pivotal in fostering long-term mental well-being.
While many young people look forward to returning to school because they enjoy the learning opportunities and peer interaction, others struggle with adapting to change, the pressure of academic success, and navigating new or already strained social dynamics. For the 14% of young people aged 10-19 who experience mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, back to school can be an especially stressful time, often exacerbating mental health symptoms.
Being aware of the signs of mental health concerns can help parents, caregivers, and teachers to address them before they escalate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) common symptoms of mental health disorders in children may include a persistent low mood, withdrawal from social activities, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, and talking about death or suicide.
Even if a child isn’t experiencing serious changes in how they learn, behave, or handle their emotions, parents and caregivers can still play a crucial role in helping alleviate young people’s anxiety. Dr. Jesse Hanson, Clinical Psychologist and MentalHealth.com’s Medical Content Director, says this starts with open communication. He encourages parents to initiate conversations where they can identify any concerns their children may have about going back to school. “Allowing children to talk is an important step to helping them deal with stress and anxiety associated with the transition back to school,” says Hanson.
Hanson encourages parents to re-establish a routine before the school year begins, incorporating regular bedtimes and daily rituals. It’s also important to set aside time to discuss practical issues such as travel to school, equipment, and uniforms so children feel prepared. If friendships have waned over the holidays, it’s suggested that parents arrange get-togethers with peers. This also provides an opportunity for parents to connect and determine if classmates have similar back-to-school concerns that could be addressed collectively.
Introducing children to mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga can also be beneficial as they have been shown to significantly improve stress and interpersonal problems experienced by students. Hanson advises that “breathwork is likely the most effective mindfulness technique that can quickly and positively impact students and educators.” He continues, “Learning to track, influence, and utilize breath has an amazing ability to reduce anxiety. We cannot remain anxious when breathing deep and slow”. Hanson also advises adopting Guided Imagery and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) principles as they “reduce stress and provide an increased sense of safety and belonging.”
However, helping children transition back to school isn’t solely the responsibility of parents. Hanson acknowledges that “educators are the ones most directly responsible for managing and supporting our children’s emotional process associated with returning to school.” He explains, “A child’s sense of self is highly influenced by their peers and the social interactions that naturally arise at school.” With this in mind, the classroom environment must be as welcoming and supportive as possible. Education professionals should provide opportunities for open dialogue and airing of any concerns. They should also be aware of changes in behavior or attitude that may signal a student is experiencing a mental health challenge. This approach is supported by studies identifying the need for regular psychological health monitoring and emotional support in schools.
Returning to school can be challenging, but “by being sensitive, empathetic, we can prepare young people well and adopt ongoing techniques to reduce the psychological impact,” says Hanson. Through cooperation, parents, caregivers, and teachers can make school a positive experience for children that benefits the rest of their lives.
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