YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Ease Young Children Into School Routine


For many children, the transition from vacation back to school is met with anticipation and excitement, while other children feel apprehensive and worried.

Whether your children are attending school for the first time or returning to the classroom, they may experience the jitters. These feelings are usually normal, but there are things parents can do to ease their children's anxiety and ensure a more rewarding school experience.

Normal back-to-school jitters include complaints of stomachaches, headaches and general malaise, which often go away if the child is allowed to stay at home. Changes in the home or a stressful event might precipitate school anxiety, and the child becomes even more reluctant to leave the parents. Children with learning problems also are especially likely to exhibit an unwillingness to attend school.

Parents can do several things to make this time easier for the child.

First, especially if your child is just beginning school or will be attending a new one, a visit to the campus will help familiarize your child with the grounds and overall feeling of the school.

If you know other children who will be in your child's class, try to arrange a play date before the first day of school. Your child will feel more comfortable knowing a classmate.

Begin establishing routines two to three weeks before the first day of school. Create new rituals you can share with your child, such as shopping for a special outfit or picking out a favorite notebook or backpack. Allowing children to take part in making decisions about clothing, school supplies and the like will provide them with a sense of competency and assurance. In addition, these activities help create a stable and predictable environment that will help carry your child through anxiety-provoking situations.

There also are many books you and your child can read together that focus on school entry, and a trip to the library or bookstore can become another ritual your child will look forward to each year.

Perhaps most importantly, provide your children with a supportive, loving environment in which they feel safe expressing fears. Ask your children about their concerns and listen to their answers; this is crucial for effective communication and to build a strong parent-child relationship.

So when should a parent become concerned about back-to-school jitters? Some signs that your child is exhibiting abnormal levels of anxiety are:

* Excessive clinginess to one or both parents.

* Unrealistic worry that parents or other people important to the child will be harmed in some way.

* Excessive worry that something will separate the child from parents.

* Temper tantrums, crying or pleading when separated or even in anticipation of being separated from parents.

* Difficulty going to sleep; nightmares.

* Exaggerated, unrealistic fears of animals, burglars, monsters, dying.

* Repeated complaints of physical symptoms on school days.

* Social withdrawal; refusal to play with other children.

If your child exhibits at least three of the symptoms above and has done so for longer than two weeks, seek out an evaluation by a professional. If you suspect your child might have learning difficulties that influence attitudes toward school, speak with the school psychologist or a mental health professional.

That person will gather a thorough history, including learning and peer relationships. Based on the resulting evaluation, an individualized treatment plan is recommended to the family. Usually, this includes a requirement that the child attend school except in the case of a valid medical excuse. The therapist will work closely with parents to help the transition and to identify the child's strengths and weaknesses to learn more effective ways of dealing with fears and worries.

Of top importance is that a comprehensive approach is taken that includes cooperation among parents, teachers, counselors and physicians in order to thwart the acquisition of anxiety later in life.

It is important to remember that entering school is not comfortable for all children. It often marks the first time children are separated from their parents, and can be a challenge for both the child and the parents. Taking a few steps to ensure a smooth transition will benefit both and provide children with the reassurance that there are new and exciting experiences ahead of them.


Grace A. Mucci, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical program director of the Assessment and Treatment Services Center, a nonprofit counseing center with offices in Newport Beach and Tustin. The services center provides free counseling to troubled school-age children and their families who are referred by schools. The center can be reached at (949) 756-0993 or via email at

Los Angeles Times Articles