It’s natural that on some days a child may not want to go to school. They may be having a hard time with some friends, or struggling in a particular subject. These are trials that all children face at some time.
Sometimes low levels worries can escalate to deep anxieties causing emotional, health, behavioral problems, and even school refusal.
The first step towards tackling school anxiety in children is identifying it.
In some cases the child’s behavior gives a clear indication that problems at school are the underlying cause. Tantrums at the school gate and mystery illnesses every Monday morning don’t leave much room for doubt.
However, often the child’s behavior may change in a way that is harder to explain, and parents need to unravel the cryptic clues to identify the problem.
A child may be quiet in the room after bedtime, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are asleep. Parents can be oblivious to night-time anxiety if their child stays in bed and doesn’t want to disturb their parents. If you suspect your child may be kept awake by anxious thoughts, leave a notepad and pen by their bed, and encourage them to write down any worries, which you can discuss the next day.
Perfectionism is another way in which anxiety can manifest itself. For example, your child may be very particular about how they look, and need to get their appearance perfect before they are ready to leave the house. They are unlikely to be consciously thinking ‘if I comb my hair one more time, that’s an extra five minutes until I get to school’. Instead they are coping with a huge surge of adrenaline, caused by their school anxiety. They channel this adrenaline into over preparing. Imagine yourself when you are anxious about an important meeting, or big celebration: don’t you over-prepare, get caught up in the detail, and spend time focusing on things that would not normally concern you?
School anxiety in children is even harder to spot when the child works hard to maintain a calm exterior all day, only to fall apart when they get home. These children channel their excess adrenaline into appearing normal throughout the school day. They don’t let on to anyone that there’s a problem, and instead try to deal with it themselves. Once the school day ends, the tiredness is overwhelming and behavioral problems are evident at home.
If you suspect your child is suffering from school anxiety, encourage them to share their worries. You can lead by example, by sharing your own experiences of going to school, and how you deal with things that cause you stress now.
Books can be a useful tool to facilitate conversation, so arm yourself with something age appropriate, such as The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside and Frank Rodgers.
Finally, you do not need to tackle this problem alone. Schools are experienced in dealing with these problems, and should be able to give you access to a counselor to help you and your child work through it.