How to tell if your child is anxious about going back to school

Young children have experienced a tumultuous time over the last few months. Many will be overjoyed to be returning back to school or nursery to see their friends but, for some, this could be an anxious time as they have become used to being around parents or carers, every day, at home. The Montessori approach knows children are resilient and independent, and our research backs up that children are coping well: 85% of parents admire and are proud of the way their children have adapted to lockdown. However, it is completely normal for some to need a bit of extra support. 

Our focus right now must be the emotional wellbeing of young children and making sure we help them make a safe transition. But if you’re concerned that your child is feeling anxious or nervous about the next school year then try not to worry, this is a natural process that you can help them come to terms with. Instead, observe and respond to the needs of your child and take your cues from them. Here’s how. 

What to look out for to spot anxiety in the early years

Like adults, there are multiple signs of unease to look out for in young children. They may be having trouble sleeping, whether that be dropping off, restlessness, or bad dreams. They may not be eating properly, having negative thoughts, getting angry or irritable quickly, or having outbursts beyond their control. Once the topic of going back to school is broached, they might cry more often, seem clingy or complain of feeling unwell.

Practical ways to ease the transition

To ease children’s anxieties around going back to school, there are practical things you can do. First, reconnect with the school and your child’s teacher, they can help as they know your child.  

Use the same language that school is using about the transition back and about the current situation. It helps avoid confusion and creates consistency. You also may want to put a calendar on the wall to help with the countdown and talk to them about their school, perhaps looking at photos of the school, teachers and friends. 

Another consideration may be how school will look and feel different because of Covid restrictions. Acknowledge it may feel strange and reassure your child that the changes are to keep everyone safe. Make connections to what your child may already be experiencing, such as facemasks and handwashing, whilst letting your child lead and ask questions. 

Play helps children to cope on their own terms

Use time at home to encourage play which can relieve stress, especially when active or connected with nature. Play provides children with opportunities to explore their emotions, develop their own views and make sense of the world.   

 Play also develops self-esteem and confidence which promotes well-being.   

Encourage play by stepping back and noticing what your child is doing without questioning or interrupting their play or exploration. Look at how they physically interact with their environment. What choices do they make? What is their process? Is there repetition and when do they finish playing altogether? 

See how you can extend their play by providing the right resources. While we want the child to succeed, letting them get it wrong and explore solutions for themselves can aid cognitive development, creativity and sense of personal accomplishment. 

Independence builds confidence

Being independent at home will help build your child’s sense of self-esteem. You could get them involved in daily tasks like helping with washing up or laying a table. Put children’s activities on shelves at their height so that they can choose what they want to do. Remember to ask them to put their things away when they have finished. 

In the Montessori approach, activities based on everyday living are important. Children practice practical life skills in their play, before applying them to real life situations. Remember to be patient, as it may make tidying up or getting out the house take a little longer, but it will give them the opportunity to achieve something and develop a sense of responsibility. 

Order creates clarity of thought

Between the ages of 0-6, children will be naturally sensitive to order. By ensuring that the child’s space is clean, orderly and consistent, children will be comforted as it reduces anxiety and helps them make sense of what is coming next. The knowledge that their toy is in the same spot or their favourite bedtime story is to be read again will help your child feel in control of the world around them. Encourage your child to keep their things tidy and in the same place, which will help develop this sense of order during times of upheaval.  

Being a role model isn’t being perfect

Children will learn by copying your behaviour and reactions. Role modelling is an important concept in the Montessori approach. If your child sees you dealing with uncertainty in a calm way, they will follow your behaviour. When you encounter uncertain situations, take a moment to stop and speak to your child calmly about the change they may be seeing around them. By including your children in conversations about changes you empower them and will help them feel at ease. As your child finds their new normal, keep calm, create structured spaces and take your cues from them. Let them, as little adults, tell you what they need. 

Leonor Stjepic is an award winning social enterprize entreneur. She is Chief Executive of the Montessori Group as well as Chair of the Board of Directors of Montessori Care International.