September is almost here, and that means back to school for many children and families. For some, this time of year is exciting and filled with new opportunities. But for others, it can be a difficult and anxiety-provoking experience. Many students feel pressure to get good grades or fit in with their classmates. And for some, the thought of returning to school can bring on feelings of sadness, loneliness, or fear.
If you work with children and families, it’s important to be aware of the potential stressors that back-to-school season can bring up and how you can help manage and reduce these feelings.
School anxiety refers to the feelings of worry, nervousness, or fear that can interfere with a child or teen’s ability to go to school or perform well while there. School anxiety differs from the normal anxiety, or stress children and teens may feel when faced with new situations or academic challenges.
For children and teens with school anxiety, the anxiety is more intense and persistent, and it can interfere with their daily life. Many things can contribute to school anxiety, including genetics, temperament, previous experiences, and environmental factors. Children and teens who are perfectionists, who have a history of anxiety or depression, or who have experienced bullying or trauma may be more prone to school anxiety.
School anxiety can have a significant impact on both the child and their families.
School anxiety can have short- and long-term effects on children and teens. In the short term, school anxiety can lead to absenteeism, as well as academic and social problems. Children and teens that are anxious about going to school may start missing days or arrive late. They may also have difficulty concentrating in class and completing assignments. School anxiety can also lead to social problems, such as withdrawal from friends and classmates.
In the long term, school anxiety can lead to academic underachievement, as well as social and emotional problems. Children and teens who repeatedly experience anxiety at school may start to fall behind academically. They may also have difficulty making and keeping friends. School anxiety can also lead to more serious mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety disorders.
School anxiety can also take a toll on families. Parents may need to take time off from work to care for a child who is too anxious to go to school. And the added stress of dealing with a child’s anxiety can cause family conflict.
Not all children and teens who have school anxiety will show the same signs and symptoms. And some may not show any outward signs at all. But there are some common signs and symptoms to look out for, including:
- Frequent absences or tardiness
- Difficulty concentrating or completing schoolwork
- Withdrawal from friends or activities
- Stomachaches or headaches
- Excessive worry or fear
- Trouble sleeping
- Restlessness or fidgeting
- Irritability or anger
As a mental health provider, you may be the first to notice these signs and symptoms in your clients. If you’re concerned that a child or teen you work with may have school anxiety, there are some things you can do to help.
There are several ways that mental health providers can help children and teens with school anxiety. It’s important to work with the child or teen (and their parents) to find a treatment approach that works for them.
Parent training can be an effective way to help parents manage their child’s anxiety. Parent training typically teaches parents how to identify and manage their child’s anxiety.
As part of parent training, you might discuss the signs and symptoms of school anxiety. You can also provide information on how to create a support system at home and how to communicate with the school.
Parent training can also help parents understand their role in their child’s anxiety. This includes things like how to manage their own stress and how to be supportive without being overbearing.
Another way to help children and teens with school anxiety is to create a school anxiety toolbox. This is a collection of tools that the child or teen can use to manage their anxiety.
The contents of the toolbox will vary depending on the child or teen’s needs. But some common items include:
- A list of positive affirmations
- Breathing exercises
- Visualization exercises
- A list of people to call or text when feeling anxious
- An emergency contact list
- A relaxation CD or app
You should familiarize yourself with the resources and services available at the school. This way, you can make referrals as needed. School counselors, psychologists, and social workers can be a great resource for children and teens with school anxiety.
You should also provide the child or teen (and their parents) with resources to help them cope with anxiety. Self-help books, websites, and apps can be a great way to provide support outside of therapy sessions.
Clinical interviews and self-report measures are important tools for providers when monitoring a child or teen’s progress during treatment. The School Anxiety Scale for Children and the School Phobia Assessment Scale are two examples of self-report measures that can be used. Providers can also use practice management software to document, monitor, and review their client’s behaviors and symptoms. This software can be extremely helpful in tracking the progress of a client over time and ensuring that the appropriate level of care is being provided.
Children and teens with school anxiety often benefit from a team approach. There may be times when it’s necessary to refer the child or teen to other professionals, such as a physician or psychiatrist. This is often the case if the child or teen has a co-occurring condition, such as depression or an anxiety disorder.
School anxiety is a common problem that can be debilitating for children and teens. As a mental health provider, you play an important role in helping these clients manage their anxiety.
By conducting parent training, creating a school anxiety toolbox, and providing resources, you can help children and teens cope with their anxiety. You should also monitor progress and refer to other professionals as needed.
With your help, children and teens with school anxiety can get back to enjoying school.
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