Anxiety, possibly the most frequently diagnosed mental health problem in children, can interfere with school functioning in several ways: younger children can experience separation issues in the kindergarten and first grade years; older children and adolescents can have social anxieties that can translate into “school refusal;”others can have performance anxieties that interfere with academic functioning, create somatic symptoms or also desire to skip school.
The important thing to remember is that it is normal for many children entering school for the first time to experience some separation anxiety. The vast majority of these children will acclimate to starting school and move into actually enjoying going to school. When you drop your Kindergartener or First-Grader off and turn to leave, your child may become tearful. It is important to quickly assure them and leave. Most of the time the teacher can tell you that after you left, your child was sad for a short time and then quickly began to have fun with friends. If your child is one of the few that does not seem to assimilate to the school process as easily, reassure your child that you will pick them up after school at a certain time and then commit to being there. It may be helpful to have a transitional object like a picture of parents or family to have in their desk.
Strategies that tend not to work well -- and may even cause more problems -- are letting your child call you during the day or worse, letting them stay home for a mental health break. Research overwhelmingly supports that the most successful treatment for anxiety is exposure to the thing that is feared. Avoiding the feared situation or object makes the anxiety stronger and more difficult to treat. If your child does develop an anxiety disorder, it is important to get help from a professional skilled in dealing with children and anxiety. Techniques like mindfulness, yoga, relaxation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be helpful.
If your older child starts to develop a school anxiety and attempts to stay home, allowing that will make the anxiety stronger. For every day they miss, the urge to not attend will grow stronger. Even if the student can get no further than the nurse’s office for the first few visits, you will be helping them desensitize to the school environment. The best treatment is to have them go to school and do school work somewhere, even if they cannot tolerate the classroom. The school counselor and school nurse often can be helpful in this regard.
An outside provider who is skilled in working with children and adolescents with anxiety can also be helpful, especially if they are open to working with your child’s school. It is also important to explore the underlying issues. Is your child having social problems or academic problems? Is the anxiety focused on one class, one assignment, one person, or is it general? It is typically helpful if you child has a support person within the school staff that they can go to.
So the overarching message is this: First, do not let your anxious child miss school and; second, build a supportive network for them at their school. For those of you who have experienced this issue, you know how difficult and emotionally draining this can be. I can promise you that you are not alone.
If you are worried that your child or teen may be suffering from chronic school anxiety, seek help at his or her school first. If that doesn't eas the problem, contact Headway Emotional Health Services. We have been helping adolescents and families find paths to healthier, more productive lives since 1970. WE CAN HELP.