RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The school bus is coming. Is your first-grader hiding under his bed? At least one out of 50 school-age children experience significant anxiety about going to school in the beginning of the year, according to recent surveys. Some kids react by refusing to get dressed, complaining of bellyache, crying, or even kicking and screaming.
Psychologists often group these behaviors under umbrella terms like "school phobia" or "school avoidance." But it's a mistake to label and treat all school stress the same. Knowing the specific type of distress affecting a child can help parents and teachers choose the most effective way to respond.
I believe there are five main categories that at the root of most cases of school stress:
1. Identity crisis—the child feels so vulnerable by himself that he fears major physical or psychological damage without his parent around to protect him.
2. Comfort withdrawal—the child clings to his home possessions, such as toys, food, specific pieces of furniture, because of the sense of comfort they provide.
3. Emotional timidity—the child is afraid of new experiences in the school such as the fire alarm, the school bus, or the physical aspects of the school building.
4. Social anxiety—the child is uncomfortable with the large number of people he is expected to interact with.
5. Performance anxiety—the child fears falling short of her own harsh standards and expectations.
Each type of child anxiety has unique aspects that, when understood, can be used to plan remedies to try. Look for these in your child and work with his or her teachers to formulate a plan:
If this is your son or daughter's issue you probably have seen other instances where he or she has seriously protested your absence, such as when you leave for work. Stranger anxiety is normal in infants around 9 months old, but your child may have experienced it as early as 6 months and it might have been especially intense.
Strengthening the core of one's identity is a task that we all should work toward, but it's especially important in young children. For now, your job is to provide structured reassurance for your child by working with his teacher or school counselor. You want adults at school to become extensions of you so that your child can find reassurance in their presence. Spend time together with them, preferably before classes begin; have the child learn about these parent substitutes (find out their favorite colors, pet names, and such) and take photos of them to post on the home refrigerator.
Quick tip: Give your child a photo or some object he associates with you to put in his pocket as a way of maintaining a psychological bond with you. Over time, reduce the length of your morning good-bye sessions. This gradual separation approach is different than the more common total withdrawal approach where a parent quickly hands off the child to the school personnel. This is your decision to make, but the main issue here is the child's sense of vulnerability without your presence and any course of action you take should consider this.
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While identity crisis involves the feeling of loss without the parent near, comfort withdrawal occurs when the child feels the absence of an object or setting that provides a sense of not only security, but pleasure.
Here the trick is to try to provide substitutes that can build a psychological connection for the child with the source of security he or she is used to. Maybe taking a picture of the family dog to school would do it. Maybe a favorite toy stuffed in her backpack would help her duplicate his sense of home comfort in school. Sometimes a teacher can give a responsibility to this kind of child, such as taking care of the classroom fish tank or some other task that makes her feel connected to home.
The distress here is caused by a fear of the unknown. You can try to help by providing information to the child. Visiting the school and meeting the school staff before the school year starts is ideal. But if school has already started, playing on the school's playground after school or on weekends can speed up acclimation and reduce dread of the unknown. Familiarity is the antidote here.
This stems from not feeling like part of the group. Your child may be fine interacting with just one kid but once you begin to introduce others, distress becomes noticeable. One important intervention is to invite one classmate to your home and provide an enjoyable experience for them. Having both of them play on the schoolyard during a day off may help desensitize your child's fear of the group. Over time add a couple of friends to this benevolent group. If this fear remains intense you'll need to engage the teacher's involvement.
Many kids seem to be born worriers. A child with a constant furrowed brow, often accompanied by a dark cloud, may be a very intelligent individual who just seems to take on an adult view of the world and its many concerns. Your mission as parent is to encourage playfulness and support your child's efforts rather than results. Make sure that you are not adding extra demands on top of his or her personal drive to do well. At the same time realize that this over-conscientiousness and over-responsibility is very likely part of his genetic makeup.
Some children fall into more than one of the above groups, so you may need to try a few interventions. A child's refusal to go to school can be significant and really upsetting to parents yet still be part of a normal development hurdle. The key is to try some potential solutions with teacher help first and recognize when professional help may be needed.
Dr. Mario Alonso is a clinical psychologist and founder of the personality test website PsychDNA.com.
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