School Anxiety: What Has Helped Our Family
Three years ago, our oldest started daily pre-k. Things were great at first, but they got worse. A lot worse. He started on a Wednesday and absolutely loved it. Thursday he cried and said it was because he didn't like the noisy cafeteria, which they had to go to first thing. Thursday is also soccer practice day, and the day he gets a little one-on-one from an awesome homeschool teacher, that I'm glad we didn't have to give up because he loves. By Friday, he was tired and totally did not want to go to school. He even mentioned that if I didn't make him go to school, he would go take a nap….which, he hates napping these days, so I knew it was serious. I had to pry his hands from the carseat and carry him inside. By the end of this traumatic experience, he was screaming and crying and I was feeling sadness and guilt. I wasn't sure that we had made the right decision, but I said a prayer for him and went home with our then 2 year old.
When I went to pick him up a few hours later, he was smiling and he said he liked school. The teacher said he had a good day and stopped crying. He told me that he cried through the cafeteria time and part of recess, but then enjoyed the rest of the day. It's so awful to think that your child is crying and you can't do anything for them. Friends of mine said it was good for him, that it would prepare him for other life experiences, and he would be fine. Well, fine he was, but I am not sure that it was necessarily "good" for him, but I guess that's all dependent on how you look at things. I know people that have never been left at school, crying and screaming, and they turned out just fine. 🙂 I know quite a few adults who were homeschooled that have adjusted to life quite well, so I don't really think that all of this is a necessary evil, but it's just something we have to look at as a family. It's a personal parenting decision.
He eventually adjusted and loved pre-k, but it took a long time. He was extra anxious about going to kindergarten the next year, and with a 3 year old and a baby at home, I just wasn't up to the struggles again, so we decided to homeschool and it was the right decision. It was a special time for all of us. It was hard, YES, but dealing with anxiety is hard, too!
Last year, there was a repeat performance of school anxiety when our second son went to pre-k. The first few days were great, but then it wasn't…again. Boy #2 had a much harder time for much longer than our first son. I cried often. He cried often. He didn't really get "better" until November. It was "just" anxiety, but anxiety is rough. Anxiety is REAL. People were nice, but some really made me mad. No one knew my child like me and my husband do. No one knows my own anxiety and people who have never had anxiety do not get it at all. That's okay, but it also makes it hard.
Our oldest went back to school last year at the same time for first grade. He did so well and I was so proud of him! He did still have anxiety, but he learned coping strategies and thrived. He made so many new friends and did well in school. And he's excited about second grade right now, even though the anxiety is still there.
We don't have all the answers, as we only do what we feel is best for our kids. We acknowledge their fears and don't just brush them off saying "oh you're being dramatic, you will be fine."
A Few Things That Have Helped The School Anxiety
- Extra attention – the boys are more snuggly when starting school and that's perfectly fine with us! Going to school or daycare is a huge adjustment and if snuggling is what they need, snuggling is what they get!
- Lunchbox Notes – Since the boys' sadness seemed to peak in the loud cafeteria, I knew it might help to provide distractions in their lunchbox. I have printed out search and find pictures and taped them to the inside lid of lunchboxes and written on napkins, but there are many sites with super cute lunchbox notes, too. With our second, I wrote math facts on the vinyl that he could work through while eating because that is what he enjoys.
- Frankincense – I asked one of my friends which essential oils helped with anxiety. I don't think a 4 year old should be medicated or evaluated for what is purely natural and understandable, but I felt it couldn't hurt to try some natural, side effect free essential oils to help calm them a bit. She suggested lavender and frankincense. I happened to have some frankincense and you know what? It really helped our oldest. He thought it was cool and it smells good, and has personally attributed his feeling better to the frankincense. You might insist that it's placebo effect, but who's to say, really? It has helped! It sure doesn't hurt to remind him that it was one of Jesus' first gifts, too. He thinks that's really cool. Our second son didn't even want to give it a chance and so I don't know if it would have helped him adjust better, but that was his decision!
- Hazelwood/Amber necklace – Again, could totally be placebo, but he asked to wear his necklace every day.
- Supportive teachers – I know, you can't really predict or ensure that your child gets great teachers, but you can do something to help. Open the lines of communication with your child's teacher(s) and know that they're just doing their job. Send a note of encouragement, tell them thank you, or just smile at them. We felt that the boys' teachers were being patient with us and were doing a great job at encouraging them, even though they could've just treated him as an annoying, crying kid. The teachers are a huge part of why they like school and for that, I am thankful.
- Classroom incentives – This wasn't under our control, either, but most classes do have incentives. Treasure chests, prizes, compliments, coupons for fun activities and more have all helped. They are motivation for them. Our oldest absolutely melted my heart when he decided to use his hard work to get ME this sparkly purple necklace:
- At home incentives – I had a discussion with our oldest one day after pre-k, when he was calm and relaxed. We talked about what he could work on and what he would like to work FOR. I told him that it was perfectly acceptable to cry when he is sad. Some people might disagree, but he is a child, for crying out loud! God created him to have emotions and just because he is a male, he shouldn't have to suppress his feelings. So, I told him it was okay to cry when he felt sad but it was not okay to scream and kick when it was time to go to school. I explained that it just made others around him sad and that he could hurt others, too. So, I told him that if he worked hard at NOT throwing a big fit at drop off, for four days, he could earn a t-shirt of his favorite show, Wild Kratts. He was excited and he agreed. Now, he may have been fine without this incentive to work for, but well, I had already ordered him a Wild Kratts shirt and it helped to bring the message home. 🙂 But, it turned out that by the time school rolled around again, he wanted to use that incentive to get his Daddy a Wild Kratts shirt, not himself! He wanted to give his Daddy something and he wanted to work for it. So they wore their Wild Kratts shirts proudly! He was thrilled about it!!
- Encouragement – this is Daddy's specialty. I am inclined to reward the boys with hugs, kisses, high-fives, and getting to choose where we eat a special dinner. Daddy is really good at telling them how brave they have been and how proud of them that he is. I've definitely learned a lot from Daddy during this experience.
- Distractions – When our oldest would say something like "I am feeling a little nervous about school," I addressed it with "I know, but it will be okay" and then try to change the subject. If he's not ready to change the subject, he lets me know, but getting him to focus on something else is oftentimes helpful.
- The "Worry Box" – The boys were part of a counseling group at school last year and the school counselor had them work through their anxieties together. One thing she suggested was a "Worry Box." It was a simple piece of plastic food storage that they decorated. Then, when they were worried about something, they would write it down and put it in the Worry Box. This gave them the opportunity to identify their worry, write it down, talk about it, and "throw it away."
- Dedicated Time for Talking about Worries – One of the boy's teachers suggested having a certain time of the day to talk about things that were worrying them. That way, when something comes up during the day, we could say "we can talk about this at "Worry Time." This helped them not to dwell on something all day long. This didn't last long, because they found they didn't need this time anymore, but it was a good way to talk when we did it nightly.
All in all, remember that every child is different. Our kids are probably a bit more emotional and anxious than the average kid, but then again, maybe not. What is "normal" for your child may not be normal for other kids. Just go with it and do what's best for your family. If they continued to scream and cry about school and showed no signs of improvement, then we would have definitely reevaluated and possibly pulled them out of school. And that's not out of the question now, either. I know the advice of some is "just deal with it" and "this too shall pass," but they don't know your kid, only you do. They're not in your shoes at the present moment so all they can do is offer advice. If it doesn't help, say thanks and shrug it off. We all try to do what's best for our kids and it's not anyone else's "right" to understand why we do what we do. This is something that's hard for me because I care what people think but, as a parent, we just have to put our kids first, trust God, and hope for the best.
All in all, know that anxiety is real. It is real for babies who are dropped off at daycare for the first time. It is real for the pre-k students going to "big school." It will be real for my 2nd grader who loves school and real for my reluctant kindergartener this year. It will be real for me when leaving my kids at school for the first time. Anxiety is real for adults like me who struggle with social situations and public speaking. It is "Okay to Say" you or your child is suffering from anxiety. It's okay to say you, as an adult, may have a mental illness like anxiety that is treatable.
Stand up. Speak out. Make it Okay to Say.
For more information about school anxiety or other forms of anxiety or illness, visit OkayToSay.org.
Good luck with whatever parenting decisions you are having to face right now, if there are any! You are doing a great job!