Children's Health: Back to School Anxiety

At the Mary M. Bethune grade school - newly renovated - families and alumni stroll the sparkling hallways, peaking into classrooms, where brand new books are stacked on each new desk and screen savers dance on new computers. Sandra Taylor is a grandmother of two young boys who are transferring to the school this year. For them, the first day of school is sooner then they thought.

Sandra Taylor: For these two right now, they are a little nervous because it came up on them real quick. And with this being a new school for the boys we weren't sure when it started.

But Taylor says overall her grandchildren are excited. They live in the neighborhood and have made friends with children they'll go to school with. Down the hallway, meeting new people is making a little girl in curly pigtails nervous. First grader Larielle Haggler is a bit shy, but her mother tells her she'll do fine in school, because, as Larielle puts it:

Larielle Haggler: I'm a nice person.

Larielle's mom Stephanie Haggler says when it comes to meeting new friends; she's playing up the positives for her daughter.

Stephanie Haggler: When you make new friends, you tend to get intimidated, and things like that. So I keep her mind open, as far as, you know ,somebody's rejecting to be your friend then you can always make friends with someone else.

Anxiety about making new friends, attending a new school, or the pressure of a more difficult curriculum is common when kids first go back to class. Doctor Felipe Amunategui, a child psychologist at University Hospitals in Cleveland, says a little whining about school or reluctance to get out of bed is normal and shouldn't last long.

Felipe Amunategui: Usually there are no signs of it left by the second week of school.

Amunategui says if children continue to resist going to school or their behavior becomes more dramatic, like faking an illness or throwing temper tantrums, there's only one solution.

Felipe Amunategui: Bringing the child back to school, so spend less time arguing with the kids how these things aren't so. Highlighting the positive aspects of it and make it real clear that the expectation is unwavering. You are going to school, that is not an option.

Amunategui asserts that school avoidance after vacation or a lengthy illness is different from school phobia and social anxiety. With school phobia, a child usually has a concrete reason for wanting to stay home, perhaps to avoid a bully. Social anxiety is more severe, causing some children to resist talking - too afraid to utter a word. Amunategui says it's often based on fear of criticism, often leading children to avoid any social setting where they might be criticized.

Felipe Amunategui: Even though they may not have experienced that, but there's a potential of that in there. And you can understand how at school many opportunities to be criticized, evaluated, ridiculed and so forth. So the child begins vehemently and very deliberately avoiding those situations.

The Social Anxiety Institute in Phoenix estimates 7% of people suffer from social anxiety, others estimate it's up to 15%. Amunategui says all these anxious feelings are very treatable. Schools in some cities have instituted special programs for students diagnosed with anxiety disorders, often acting as support groups. In any city, though, experts say parents can first talk with the child one-on-one. If parental communication doesn't do the trick, get teachers and school counselors involved. As a last resort, anti-anxiety medications may be necessary but experts always say try other things first. Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.

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