CSP Team Note: It’s hard to believe, but the new school year will be here before you know it. If you have a rising kindergartener this year, you know anxiety can run high as August approaches. We recently spoke with Dr. Rhonda Patt, a pediatrician with Atrium Health Levine Children’s Charlotte Pediatric Clinic, to get some tips on easing your kindergartner’s anxieties and getting them ready for the first day. This is the third post in our series on anxiety and stress as it relates to kids and teens. See the first post on teens and anxiety here and the second post on tips for helping kids transition to a new school here. We appreciate Dr. Patt’s time and expertise on this important subject.
What are some of the most common things children are anxious about as they start kindergarten?
Most children are filled with excitement about starting kindergarten. This is a major milestone in their lives, but with change often comes worry. At this age, they’re mainly worried about the unknown because it’s a new experience for them.
How might anxiety play out in a rising kindergartner who isn’t able to communicate their fears?
At this age, anxiety can present as stomachaches, headaches, sleep problems, anger outbursts, clinginess, unwillingness to try new things, and school avoidance.
What are some ways a parent can reassure a child with anxiety?
The first step in helping a child with anxiety is to recognize the signs. Because tantrums and separation anxiety are frustrating to parents, the natural tendency is to react in a punitive way which can then escalate the behaviors rather than alleviate them. On the flip side, just because a child is anxious, it does not excuse the misbehavior.
So, this is a difficult spot as a parent because it’s important to continue to enforce rules and expectations but in a calm manner.
How can a parent be proactive this summer before school starts to calm fears?
Since the main fear of starting kindergarten is the unknown, anything a parent can do to help familiarize their child with the school is key. For example, be sure to attend “Beginners’ Day” or new student orientation.
Over the summer, I would recommend taking your child to play on the school playground, setting up some playdates with classmates, and introducing your child to other children in the neighborhood who will be riding the same bus. If there’s an older child in the neighborhood who already attends the school, this child may be able to tell your child details about how the day will go and what they loved about kindergarten.
How can a parent help a child adjust to kindergarten in the first few days of school?
As a parent it’s important to stay calm, be prepared, and remain positive. During the days leading up to the first day of school, spend some time gathering school supplies, a backpack, a lunch box, etc. Some children may want to choose their outfit for the first day. Set up a homework spot where your child will keep school supplies and their schoolwork during the year.
On the first day, wake up early so that the morning isn’t hurried or rushed. Parents should share their own memories of starting kindergarten because children love hearing about their parents’ childhood, but they should avoid discussing their own worries or sadness about this transition in front of their child.
How do you deal with separation anxiety in kindergarten?
Separation anxiety in kindergarten is common. If this is occurring at the beginning of the year, it’ll often resolve with time as the child makes more friends and becomes more familiar with the school setting.
If separation anxiety shows up later in the year, it’s important to consider other reasons such as bullying or a negative experience at school that’s triggered the symptoms. Kindergarten teachers and schools provide a lot of support around fostering independence on the kindergarten journey and may be able to provide pointers to parents of children who are having a more difficult transition.
Set goals for your child along the way. Children love the sense of accomplishment. For example, you may be walking your child to the door or to class the first few days. In this case, you could plan with your child which day will be the first day for carpool or the bus and praise that accomplishment.
When should a child see a professional for anxiety?
If a child has not transitioned well after the first two weeks of school and is avoiding school or having other signs of anxiety, it’s a good idea to speak with a professional. Children with abdominal pain or headaches that are ongoing should be seen by their healthcare provider to evaluate for other causes of these symptoms. If the symptoms of anxiety are more behavioral with outbursts, school avoidance, or acting withdrawn, a mental health professional would be the best avenue to pursue.