Tips and Tricks for Return-to-Learn Anxiety
For many children and adolescents, the idea of heading back to school after summer triggers a heightened sense of anxiety. The average academic day is rife with potential stressors, including separation from family, ongoing pressure to meet academic expectations, navigating peer and social groups, and more. While anticipatory anxiety is typically normal, for those with mental health conditions, returning to the classroom after summer break can be even more challenging. For those struggling with an eating disorder, these stresses are compounded by another set of obstacles: managing meal plans, navigating dining halls, and making time to take care of both mind and body.
Casey Tallent, PhD, National Collegiate Outreach Director for Eating Recovery Center, shares: “College is an incredibly stressful time for any student and we see many mental health disorders and coping mechanisms arise [at this time]. Eating disorders are very frequent in the college population; research estimates that up to 1 in 4 college students acknowledge experiencing an eating disorder and it’s important to know that when it comes to treatment for eating disorders the rule is the earlier [you start treatment] the better.”
Moreover, mental health conditions are on the rise. A 2021 study indicates that one-fifth of children worldwide have anxiety symptoms that are clinically elevated, or worse than what is considered normal. Within the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that almost 10% of children from age 3 to 17 were diagnosed with anxiety between 2016 and 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health conditions, with statistics skyrocketing in the past 2 years for depression, anxiety, trauma-related disorders, substance use disorder, eating disorders, and more.
It is not surprising that kids experience some anticipatory anxiety leading up to the new school year – particularly as the first day approaches – and for caregivers, parents, friends, and loved ones to notice a spike in concerns and worries. Kids may look for continual reassurance, ask repeated questions, report an increase in physical complaints, or experience changes in sleep patterns.
Children, adolescents, and college students with anxiety typically need support and validation during this transitional time, in addition to reminders surrounding productive strategies that support self-esteem, promote healthy interpersonal relationships, and mitigate some of the effects of anxiety.
How to handle back-to-school anxiety
Assess and approach – don’t avoid anxiety.
It’s a natural feeling to want to avoid situations that make us anxious or reassure our loved ones with anxiety that their concerns are not realistic. Yet this approach can contribute to an ongoing cycle that ultimately reinforces long-term anxiety. Instead, loved ones can acknowledge a kid’s emotions and walk them through small, incremental steps to assess and approach their anxiety. One might affirm anxiety by stating, “It sounds like you’re worried about making friends. What if we reach out and schedule a get-together after the first week of school so you have it on your calendar?” Even for older children and teens, it’s important to acknowledge and praise courageous behaviors: “Great job reaching out to some old friends! I’m really proud of you.”
Practice and prepare – your routines are important.
Routines are an important strategy for pushing back on anxiety. Before the school year begins, caregivers or friends might do a practice walk-through of the morning routine: waking up at an earlier time, making and eating breakfast, packing school bags, etc. For kids of any age, open houses or tours can be an optimal time to practice being in and navigating the school environment. After any practice run, have a debrief regarding successes and setbacks, and walk through problem-solving specific worries. Caregivers can prepare kids for the upcoming transition by practicing back-to-school routines early.
Prioritize sleep hygiene – you won’t regret it.
Preteens and adolescents can struggle with the shift from sleeping in later during the summer to earlier wake-up times, which can lead to increased anxiety. Getting enough sleep is one of the easiest and most impactful ways to combat anxiety. In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, try to wake up earlier and earlier in gradual increments. Make sure to practice other sleep hygiene strategies such as leaving screen devices outside the bedroom, creating a restful and relaxing environment, and including physical activity throughout the daily routine.
For younger children, parents can help with arranging play dates with peers, as research confirms that the presence of a familiar friend can help improve both academic and emotional adjustments. Caregivers can also get creative with prizes or rewards that kids can earn for attending school. No matter the age, transitions can be difficult – but there are ways to lessen the anxiety surrounding the first day of school.
Strategies from our own Say It Brave community
Eric Dorsa, LGBTQ+ Mental Health Advocate, has shared guideposts that they used upon his return to an academic environment.
Incorporate affirmations. When feeling low, repeat these affirmations to yourself: “I am more than enough.” “I am on my own path.” “I am right where I need to be.”
Remember, your mental health matters. No grade, no degree, no program is worth your mental health. It’s okay if you need to take a step back.
Stay connected. Know your support system. Many colleges and universities – and high schools – offer counseling services and support groups. It is always okay to ask for help.
Don’t compare and despair. It can easily feel as if we’ve lost something or missed out on the entire academic experience. It’s okay to grieve. You are not “less than” or “not enough” for needing to take care of yourself.