Saturday 21 April 2018

David Coleman: Banish the blues of going back to school

For every child looking forward to the new school year, there is another who is dreading it. ­Psychologist David Coleman advises how to manage the school-related anxieties ­experienced by children... and their parents

Photo posed by models
Photo posed by models
David Coleman

David Coleman

The end of the school holidays can be a mixed time in many families. Some families (parents especially) welcome the return to some kind of structure and routine. Having children and teenagers in school can ease some childcare hassles that might have been present over the summer.

Some children and teenagers, too, can be really looking forward to getting back to school. Usually this is an anticipation of reconnecting with friends or having their days a little more focused and busy after some "boredom" during the holidays.

However, for all of those children who look forward to getting back to school, there is an equivalent number of children dreading it. With most schools starting back next week, there will be some families where the distress and anxiety are reaching fever pitch as the date for resumption approaches.

Naturally, if children or teenagers are stressed at the thought of returning to school, you can be sure that their distress is leaching out into the rest of the family as they will be likely to be moody, cross, disruptive or obstructive.

The anxiety factor

At the heart of their reluctance to go back to school is, usually, some form of anxiety. For many, it is a fear of the unknown as they move into a new classroom with a new teacher, or move into secondary school, or have to deal with new subjects or make new friends. For junior infant children it might be separation anxiety.

Some will have anxiety about the workload and the academic pressure that they face. For children with learning difficulties, or those in exam years, the pressure to perform may weigh heavily on them. Even the thought of the drudge of homework or study might be enough to make them want to avoid school.

Some children will have garnered a reputation for being messers, troublemakers or being disruptive. They may be anticipating another year of strife in opposition to their teachers.

Other children will be dreading the social mix of their class, or their year, either because they have struggled to make friends, have been bullied, or have been edged to the periphery, or right out, of their previous group of friends.

The anxieties that our children and teenagers have are often mirrored by our own. Sometimes it can be a bit of a "chicken and egg" situation to determine where the anxiety originated.

There are many parents who are fearful about how well (or badly) their children will cope with school, or aspects of school. When children have already had some kind of difficulty, either social, academic or behavioural, we too might be expecting the worst when school resumes next week.

So, if we are to help our children to get back to school, to cope with it, and even thrive there, our starting point may be to reflect on, and deal with, our own emotions. We need to fully understand how the circumstances of our children's education to date, affects us too.

Their social, academic or behavioural struggles may trigger some of our own school-related trauma. I have worked with many families over the years whose children are presenting with some kind of school avoidance, where we discover that one or both parents also had really challenging educational experiences.

Parental concerns

Sometimes there are practical things that we parents can do, to reassure ourselves about how school will go for our children. Perhaps it is in our own interests to go into the school, right at the start of the year to meet teachers, year-heads or principals. We can lay out our worries and see what supports the school may have for our child.

Even just familiarising ourselves with the physical layout of the school, the personalities of the teachers, or the nature of the subjects, can help to ease our own anxieties. Typically, it is newness and unpredictability that raise our anxiety and so familiarity and predictability can work wonders to reduce it, too.

Assuming then, that we are doing our best to regulate our own anxieties, we can then turn our attention to supporting and helping our children and teenagers to deal with theirs.

The single biggest thing we can do for our children is to listen to them carefully and openly, and to show them that we can understand their view of school. Even if we don't agree with their assessment of the issues they believe they face, we still demonstrate that we can see the issues from their point of view.

Empathy is the word we use to describe being able to see things from someone else's perspective. It is a really powerful and supportive way to engage with children.

Too often, we parents rush into problem solving, trying to reassure our children that the issues can be sorted out, or that they have no need to worry. Rarely does this help since our children can be reluctant to believe us.

However, if we have shown that we really do understand the issue that our child faces, they may be more willing to accept our advice, guidance or reassurance. So, investing more time in trying to understand the problem at the start, can mean our efforts to help fix it might be more effective.


If the issues are academic, there are lots of practical things we can do. Sometimes a formal assessment is warranted, to get a better, more comprehensive, picture of the nature of the difficulties that our child faces.

Specific learning difficulties, like dyslexia, can be hard to spot, but can often dramatically impact our child's self-esteem since they may have compared themselves negatively to others in their class, even coming to believe that they are stupid.

The organisational difficulties associated with dyspraxia (DCD) sometimes makes secondary school in particular a challenge as students try to negotiate timetables, lockers, moving classrooms, bringing home the right books for homework and so on. These are all issues that can be supported, by keeping close contact with the school, and leaning on the additional resources and learning supports that they can provide.

Behavioural issues too will require lots of contact with the school. Forming good working relationships with teachers, vice-principals and principals can often lead to quicker resolution of problems, or greater patience on the part of the school.

Taking sides

It is important that, as a parent, you make sure your child or teenager sees that you are aligned with them. That alignment doesn't have to be to the exclusion of being able to see a school's perspective, but your son or daughter will want to know that you are, essentially, on their side.

Social anxieties can often be the hardest issues to deal with. They are usually the ones that we can most sympathise with, as we too may have had our social difficulties in our youth. Sometimes we can feel a bit paralysed, as a parent, because we are re-traumatised by seeing the difficulty our child now faces.

However, social difficulties usually require a double-edged approach to resolving them. On the one hand our child might need specific friendship building skills, or assertiveness skills, or strategies to deal with bullying. They may benefit from confidence or self-esteem building.

Parallel with that, though, they will probably need some support and intervention from the adults in charge. So, for example, in cases of bullying, schools need to make sure the bullying stops, alongside whatever confidence building we do with our child.

Sometimes, when we know the parents of the children involved, it can really help to speak with them, in a co-operative way, about the way the friendships are developing, or are stalling.

But, irrespective of the cause of the dread, stress or the anxiety that our children may feel, they need us to be understanding, warm and comforting. They may also need us to be steadfast and resolute about the long-term benefits of education and our unwillingness to let them run away from whatever problem they feel they are facing.

Sometimes families may need outside help from a psychologist or other therapist, to work out what the problem might really be. This is, again, why it is so key that we do properly listen to, and empathise with, their perspective about the challenge that school represents to them. When they know that we "get it" they are going to be more willing to allow us to help them try to solve the problem.

In those cases where the problem can't be solved, at least our children will know that we appreciate and recognise the struggle they have. At the very least a problem shared might be a problem halved, giving them enough heart to head back into school for another academic year.


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