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Strategies for Coping with the Stress of a New School Year

By: Maura L. Johnson, LCSW, PMH-C

The first day of a new school year often brings on a range of emotions for both children and adults. It signals the end of our (painfully) short Pittsburgh summer, along with readjusting to a new grade and possibly a new school. For those in kindergarten, it likely brings a mix of excitement and nervousness, with parents possibly feeling a mix of sadness and pride. School can be enjoyable, but it can also bring on a range of stressors at different points. Here are some of the more common ones I see in practice, along with some coping strategies: 1. Being assigned a different class than most of your close friends This one tends to be more relevant for elementary-age students and can lead to significant disappointment. The fear of not having friends or others they know in class can be very distressing to young children. It’s important to validate their feelings by empathizing with them, providing support and actively listening to their specific concerns. It can then be helpful to help them consider the positive aspects to being in a new class. What type of new friendships can they develop? How might this help them grow their friend group and possibly engage in new activities? For every “what if” fear that is negative, there is the same possibility that will be a positive experience. I like to remind kids that anxiety is all about overestimating the perceived negative event and underestimating their ability to cope with it. 2. Being the new student in school or transitioning to the next building (middle, high school, etc.) Many would agree that the easiest time to start at a new school is during the early elementary years. While I don’t disagree, going to a new school and leaving familiar faces and places is rarely easy. During adolescence, this can present a particular challenge, as it may seem as though others have already found their “people.” This is another situation where empathy and listening go a long way, as well as supporting a child who may be grieving the loss of their “old life.” While it’s certainly beneficial for them to engage in school-related activities, sports, etc., they may need your patience with this. Encouraging activities like school-related clubs, student council and athletics can be particularly helpful in meeting new peers. If the move was somewhat local and they can still see old friends periodically, encourage them to nurture those friendships as well. They may seem as though they are hanging on or holding themselves back, but they may need time to really open up to their new environment.

3. Being too involved/overscheduled I encounter a fair amount of anxious students each year, primarily related to a mix of rigorous academics and extracurriculars. When this occurs, we often evaluate what is happening and what can be minimized or, if necessary, eliminated. It’s imperative to reconsider how we define productivity and reframe it to include rest and leisure activities. If it’s not possible to necessarily stop an activity or drop a class, we consider where there are pockets of time and how to take advantage of them. We evaluate how much sleep they are getting, and the quality of their sleep and prioritize that first.

4. Not wanting or refusing to attend school

If you’ve experienced this one, then you know just how challenging it can be. One common reason I’ve seen with this is often related to a phobia, such as fear of becoming ill at school, fear of embarrassment or possible symptoms of depression. It’s important to identify the reason(s) and also to engage your student’s guidance counselor. Many schools are more than willing to assist in meeting the student at drop-off, allowing for time in the guidance office and providing spaces for students to be alone, as needed. Therapy may also be helpful in this situation, as the student may be dealing with a phobia, separation anxiety, or bullying.

School is often said to be the job we have during childhood, and as with any job, there is bound to be stress. Some years may be better than others but just know that experiencing some hardships along the way is to be expected. Wishing you a wonderful 2022-2023 school year!


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