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Managing back-to-school anxiety in advance of first day

Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 9:31 AM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Many area school districts are preparing to welcome students for a new calendar year, while parents try to ease the back-to-school nerves their children may be experiencing.

It’s natural to feel some anxiety as that first day of school approaches. For high school students specifically, the pressure to perform well can be very high.

Dr. Marcia Slattery is a UW Madison Professor of Psychiatry & Pediatrics. She specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry and anxiety disorders in kids, adolescents, and adults.

Dr. Slattery expressed concern that some teens may feel they are behind the curve after a year of virtual learning. She said getting a consistent sleep routine in check will help them balance out these emotions and get their brain and body back in sync.

“It not only is for our psychical restfulness, but also for attention, for focus, anxiety, for mood. It basically effects everything and so optimizing our sleep will optimize how we operate and how we function going into a day,” said Dr. Slattery.

Health professionals also suggest making a priority list ahead of the school year. It is easy for high school students to over-schedule and overwhelm themselves, so focusing on what’s most important can help them create balance.

For middle school students, the transition from grade school to middle school can be a substantial one.

Dr. Slattery encourages parents to speak to their children about their concerns from a strength-based perspective.

“Really put it into a proactive, skills-strengths based discussion. Like how could I handle this or what could I do? How can we make this day go better?”

Another tip she gave is to psychically write out a list of concerns and solutions. Then, parents can review the list with their child before bed each night leading up to the first day of school.

Younger children in grades K-5th may be excited to attend school, but not so sure about leaving mom and dad all day.

Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of younger kids have grown attached to their parents and feel safe at home.

Dr. Slattery said it may be a good idea for parents to practice separating now, so their kids don’t have such a hard time when school starts.

“It may be that they go on a few more play dates. It may be that they go and play on the playground of that school with some kids that are going to be in their class. That they are able to be with kids for longer periods of time or relatives, etc. to be away from home,” said Dr. Slattery.

Even small steps like picking out the first-day outfit in advance, walking to the bus stop, and asking your child to pack themselves a lunch can help ease them back into school mode.

“When we have a routine, we tend to have less anxiety, because our brain knows what’s going to happen, even if it’s a very basic routine of what the day is going to be,” said Dr. Slattery.

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