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How to overcome back to school anxiety

01 September 2023: While many approach the new school year with anticipation for the good things to come, for some children the prospect of returning to school after an extended period can be daunting.

01 September 2023:  While many approach the new school year with anticipation for the good things to come, for some children the prospect of returning to school after an extended period can be daunting. Back-to-school anxiety is very common and understandable. Throughout holidays, children settle into home routines and, for many, the thought of early mornings, constant socialisation, meeting expectations and high levels of stimulation is challenging. Return-to-work anxiety is a lived experience for many adults and so it is natural for children to share similar worries.  

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, experienced by everyone at some point in their lives. Feelings of anxiety can activate innate responses and can be triggered by a range of factors: 

“Fight, flight or freeze are the three most basic stress responses. They reflect how your body will react to danger. Fawn is the fourth stress response that was identified later.  

The fight response is your body’s way of facing any perceived threat aggressively. Flight means your body urges you to run from danger. Freeze is your body’s inability to move or act against a threat. Fawn is your body’s stress response to try to please someone to avoid conflict.  

The goal of the fight, flight, freeze and fawn response is to decrease, end, or evade danger and return to a calm, relaxed state.” 

Written by Martin Taylor; Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev  

In our context, the perceived ‘danger’ or ‘threat’ for children is facing the unknown. 

Children may feel overexcited or may worry about seeing certain individuals in their peer group; they may feel anxious about subjects they find challenging; they may struggle with the length of a particular lesson on a given day. Children may be recovering from illness or have to deal with spending time away from family and pets. Returning to school after time away can be tough. 

Reluctance in returning to school may look like: 

  • Not wanting to get up or get ready for school; 

  • Feeling unwell or complaining of stomach aches or headaches; 

  • Not sleeping well; 

  • Appearing more clingy than usual; 

  • Expressing themselves angrily, seeming upset, or acting out; 

  • Having bouts of unexplained crying; 

  • Struggling to concentrate; 

  • Beginning to worry about small issues; 

  • Beginning to withdraw, seem down or quiet. 


 How can I support my child? 

Trying a few new strategies at home leading up to the return to school (or building them into the nightly routine) may help your child with their self-regulation. Here are a few strategies that might work in your home: 

Getting ready   

Helping your child to organise their personal belongings ahead of time may reduce stress in the morning. Encourage your child to have their school bag packed with necessary equipment and clothing; and keeping it near the front door, ready for the morning will help keep mornings running smoothly.   

Open discussion  

Talk to your child about how they are feeling. If they are seeming a little reluctant, try drawing ‘the Anxiety Iceberg’ listed in the resources below. Understanding what is troubling your child can welcome healthy discourse about their worries and can help them to release built-up tension. Talking about school in a positive light can help as well. That leads to …  

 Finding something good  

Look through your child’s timetable with them and help highlight something they are looking forward to in each day. If they have a tough time identifying something, suggest a lesson in which they received positive feedback in a school report or that they have previously talked about in a positive way. Help your child to realise their potential each day.   

 Healthy routines  

Ensure your child has a calming bedtime routine. Avoid screen time for at least one hour before bed. If returning from a school holiday, try to re-establish school night routines at least two to three days prior to the return to school. Children thrive from routine so helping to ensure they are having a healthy diet and they are getting enough sleep will help them to feel safe, relaxed and regulated.   

 Acknowledge and keep calm  

Be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings, rather than dismissing them or simply telling them that everything will be ‘okay’. Even if you have your own concerns about your child’s return to school, ensure your commentary remains positive or neutral. If your child is having a problem at school, support them with tips and strategies for problem-solving while taking a gentle step back (where appropriate) allowing them space to work through what is troubling them.   

Feeling worried, stressed or anxious are unpleasant feelings, but all emotions have their value. We cannot feel happy all the time. Remember that your child will not always feel this way and helping them to accept their feelings as valid and valuable experiences will help to develop their emotional resiliency. 

Ally Linney 

Assistant Head (Pastoral) & Designated Safeguarding Lead 


Suggested Resources 

The Anxiety Iceberg - How to support your child if they're struggling with school anxiety - YouTube 

Preparing your child for the return to school  

Going back to school | Childline