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Contagious anxiety? Managing the return to school


By Sarah Wayland

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Have you noticed that it's around this time that family conversations tend to change?

January tends to have a different feel than the rest of the year – holidays, book reading, snippets of time to lay about, laugh and not focus too much on the clock. Our kids have similar experiences. A long break from school and a chance to break away from the rigidity of routines can give them a chance to try and just be, but as January draws to a close the conversations between parents and kids turn to the arrival of the new school year. A conversation that can be filled with a mix of excitement and anxiety.

Hannah, 13, is heading in to Year 8 at school this year. Being a seasoned professional in understanding how high school works, she notices that she has different fears to the ones she had in her younger years “in primary school my biggest worry was who was in my class, I didn’t really give a thought to the work”. But now she finds that it’s the social and the academic aspects that scare her “I worry that the new grade will be hard to keep up with and then I think about classes and teachers – I worry that there might not be anyone in my class that I know”.

Hannah has taught herself ways to manage the anxiety and in turn has shown her parents what she needs to keep the uncertainty in check “I like to be organized and plan ahead, work out timetables and try to manage the homework and the extra activities outside of school because it makes me feel like I’m not all cluttered, like I’m in control, I’m on top of everything”.

It’s easy to find ourselves asking our younger children “Who do you think you’ll have as a teacher this year? Do you think that your bestie will be in your class?” They’re common questions as the school holidays draw to a close but in the gentle prodding the questions can have a negative effect because what we are asking are unknowns, and the unknowns can create doubts and anxiety about what the new year will bring.

Denyse Whelan, Education specialist and retired School Principal (K-6) agrees that anxiety can be contagious. The transition from being at home to going to school for those starting their school career is a milestone that in some ways disturbs the bond between parent and child but, as Denyse explains, the emphasis on wistfulness might not be helpful “I know it’s tempting to feel nostalgic at this time of the year especially if the child going to school is your first one but hard as it is, limiting the ‘oh I am going to miss you so much’ is encouraged. I’ve heard of kids who have really empathized so much with the parent (mostly Mum) that they’ve been worried about her being ‘lonely’ and think they should be home”.

Denyse suggests the following tips in making the transition from school holidays to school days smoother:

  • Make the week before school goes back similar to the times that kids will be going to bed and waking up.
  • Reduce the amount of exposure to the ‘back to school’ ads – seriously they can make teachers anxious too!
  • Leave the conversations about going back to school until the daylight hours BUT do ask your child to come and tell you, anytime, what’s bothering them (school or not).
  • Have a practice at ‘getting up’ and ‘getting dressed’ and ‘getting out the door’ with the kids a day or two before school goes back.
  • Find out if you can beforehand how your school ‘does’ first days.
  • Ask grandparents and siblings to limit the questions and the ‘oh you are going to school’ scenarios to lessen the anxiety.

The unknowns can breed uncertainty but its important for children to know that anxiety is an emotion that we all experience. Taking the time to acknowledge that the anxiety exists, that it can help us prepare for what’s happening next and that in the midst of unknowns new experiences – even something like a new grade at school – can offer the chance to learn new things, make new friends and get back to those monkey bars in the playground.

What do you notice about anxiety and your kids on the return to school?

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Sarah Wayland - to view all of Sarah's blog post click here

Sarah Wayland is a Social Worker who has spent the last 15 years working in the fields of trauma and loss. She is currently conducting postgraduate research into the way hope influences a persons ability to survive loss as well as establishing a private practice in Sydney. She is a mum of 2 and a step-mum of 2 more who is passionate about exploring those areas of life that we don't often discuss openly.


  • Great article! We face our eldest starting school for the first time this year and so far – the anxiety is with mum and not him!
    I really think the idea of being prepared and organised is a good one. I can see that every time I get one more thing ready for him to start school, he seems happier and even more excited!
    We have tried our best to only have positive conversations about starting school. We have not mentioned anything along the lines of missing him or growing up. Always keeping the focus on a new adventure starting and how much fun it will be. Let’s see how we go! Beautifully written Sarah and great advice Denyse xx

    • I must admit Josefa that the year when my girl started school I was a mess but as each year goes on I see the merits of all that learning, the new relationships in the playground and the joy of having a fab teacher. I think that Denyse’s advice is on the ball – make it more about the opportunities and work out other ways to channel your sadness, which in my experience is only fleeting. Good luck to your boy – so much fun to be had at ‘big’ school x