Coping with school anxiety

The first day of kindergarten can leave both children and parents feeling overwhelmed and anxious. As a working mom of two, full-time day care has been a reality for my family since my eldest was a year old. He’s been socialized. He’s made friends. But now it was time for him to begin a new chapter — public school.

Like countless other four-year-olds, my son began junior kindergarten in September. It was pretty clear — the prospect of beginning school left him feeling a little uncertain about his newest milestone, but it was met with excitement, joy and even elation. He and I would discuss how big his new school might be, how many new friends he could make, and whether he’d be riding the school bus.

The first day of school isn’t only new territory for students; it’s also a smorgasbord of emotions for parents and it’s clear on the first day who’s coping or crumbling. I’ve seen it firsthand — some moms and dads leave in tears. Others walk away after a quick hug goodbye. And many would admit to having some reservations about letting go of their child’s tiny hand, watching him or her take the first steps toward independence.  Surprisingly, I left unscathed. Perhaps my inquisitive toddler — who accompanied us on the first day — proved to be a big enough distraction. But my son didn’t want to let go of my hand.  And it was puzzling.

Children with anxiety

As happy as my son is to share stories about his day — from choosing a book at the school library to being line leader before heading outside for recess — his drop-offs are often emotional. It’s the same routine every day: my two-year-old daughter and I walk him to the junior school yard, give him hugs and kisses, and leave. Some days, he’ll stare back at us with his eyes welled up. Others, I’ll hear his teacher offer her most comforting words as I try to stay composed while I head back to my car. And I’ll admit, there are times where he’s not shy about vocalizing his displeasure with my decision to leave him for the day. It’s both dreadful and painful and I know other parents can relate, because I’ve seen it.

Symptoms of anxiety

Kindergartners can experience different forms of anxiety. While parents might be quick to associate separation anxiety with babies and toddlers, it can absolutely rear its ugly head when children start school. Social anxiety can also affect four and five-year-olds. While making new friends has never seemed to be a challenge for my son, by nature his is quite shy. Rest assured parents — it’s actually not uncommon for children to feel anxious in their new surroundings.

Helping your child cope

Trust your instincts. If you feel your little one needs reassurance, give him or her a hug. It’s also important to talk to your children about their fears. My son often asks questions about where I’m headed, how long I might be at work for the day and who will pick him up after school. Taking a few extra moments to answer your child’s questions can help ease the worry and doubt.

Lightening your child’s after-school load can also help you both better cope with school anxiety. I’ve made a conscious effort not to involve our son in too many extra-curricular activities and instead, allow him to get used to his ‘new normal’ at his own pace.

With full-day kindergarten available in most public school boards across the country, our youngsters have a heavier load than most of us did as children. Forget part-time half days; many kids are now bookending their days with before and after-school programs.  Not only does this stretch school days to about ten hours, let’s face it: it’s also exhausting for their developing minds.

Short-term goals

While my child is motivated about school and is excited to discuss what he’s learned, that motivation wanes as I let go of his hand just before the morning bell rings. After the first couple of weeks of school, I decided to try offering incentives like having him watch his favourite television show after school. I gave him goals he could work towards, like marking the calendar with stickers. After the week was done, he was rewarded. While it worked wonders at first, the novelty quickly wore off.

Experts say positive reinforcement goes a long way. Instead of offering a new toy or book, tell your children how proud you are and ask if they feel the same.

Seeking professional help

While your child’s feelings of anxiousness are likely normal, they shouldn’t interfere with daily activities or cause him or her to be anti-social. has some pointers for parents who may be concerned about their child’s behavior.

And for a look at symptoms of separation and social anxiety disorders, check out

Looking for opportunities to engage your children in different activities can have long-lasting benefits to their development. Check out co-contributor Rima Kar’s article on the benefits of learning a musical instrument! She also wrote an article all about developing confidence in your children, a huge benefit that would help with anxiety as well.