Updated August 2013
All children occasionally feel butterflies at school. Nervousness may spring up while waiting to give a presentation about the planets. Or that Hip-Hop unit in P.E. class just may trigger a stomachache if dancing is not their forte.
Some anxiety is normal. But some children experience persistent and excessive worry at school or while thinking about school when they are at home. They may experience anxiety attacks and feel ill; nerves can interfere with academic work, behavior at home, emotional health, and socializing.
What’s So Scary?
Diane Peters Mayer, a social worker and author of Overcoming School Anxiety, writes that more than 6 million school children have school anxiety and may report feeling sick because their emotional and physical symptoms confuse them. Symptoms of school anxiety can include:
- a pounding heartbeat
- tense muscles
- shortness of breath
Kids may feel overwhelmed, out of control, helpless, or embarrassed, perhaps just wanting to hide under the covers in bed. Parents sometimes mistake a child’s suffering for manipulation, thinking a child just wants to take the day off.
What are some of the reasons for school anxiety? According to Mayer:
- Feeling overwhelmed by demands. Kids who aren’t great test-takers may feel the pressure of high-stakes assessment and competition. Sometimes heavy homework loads and falling behind will create the anxiety.
- Genetics and modeling. Many anxious children have anxious parents, or may be sensitive to a parent’s fear and anxiety.
- Household stress. Unemployment and financial hardship may affect kids as well as parents. Other children may be over-scheduled and lacking sufficient time for free play.
- Social issues. Kids (and especially tweens) who have trouble fitting in at school are at risk for school anxiety. ?Bullying at school may also be a contributing factor.
- Lack of support at school. Not all schools have programs in place to help kids with anxiety. This makes treatment and success in school more difficult.
How You Can Help
Mayer’s book touches on the following tips for overcoming school anxiety.
Listen, and express confidence. “Reassure your child that together you are going to solve the problem and make things better.” Since your child may be feeling out of control, it is important to keep your own worry and anxiety in check; stay calm in spite of what she may say or do.
Partner with the school. Brainstorm with your child’s teachers and counselors. Sometimes it is necessary to see a child therapist or a doctor outside of school. Emphasize to your child that this is not a sign of weakness or failure.
Learn relaxation techniques. Various deep breathing, meditation, and relaxation exercises can help. A pediatrician, school counselor, or psychologist can make helpful suggestions.
Reduce stress at home. It’s extremely important to become a role model of good coping skills around stress and managing problems. Take good care of yourself and watch others around you benefit.
Don’t be afraid to hope. “I believe in you” are powerful words for your child to hear from you. Talk about how you are confident she will overcome this rough patch and emerge stronger.
Help for Anxiety
- Anxiety Disorders Association of America
- Diane Peters Mayer, Overcoming School Anxiety (2008)
- Marie Hartwell-Walker, “School Phobia: I’m Not Stupid, I’m Scared”
Michele Ranard, MEd, helps children deal with school anxiety as an academic tutor and counselor.
More help for anxiety from NJ Family: