Editor’s note: By Kelly Wallace, CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life.
I’ll admit, I was one of those kids who loved school (no eyeroll please!) but still, I remember the butterflies-in-the-belly feeling as summer wound down and that first day of class loomed ahead.
Nearly all kids — of all ages — likely feel somewhat anxious about the end of two or more months of vacation and the start of the school year.
That’s what I learned when I headed to Camp Yomi, a summer day camp outside New York City, and asked a group of incoming first, second, third and fourth graders what they are most nervous about for the return to school.
Bethany, a soon-to-be second grader, said she was anxious about her new teacher because her “old teacher said she’s strict.” Alice worried about starting fourth grade in a new school and whether people will be “mean” to her.
So many of the kids talked about the standardized tests in public schools and just as many complained about homework. In fact, a recent study found the primary cause of children’s stress, according to parents, was related to homework and schoolwork. Of more than 400 parents surveyed, 53% cited homework and schoolwork as the driver of the most stress for their kids.
The best advice for parents is to watch and listen for any signs of anxiety as opposed to asking their children directly if they are feeling nervous or worried, said Linda Esposito, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Los Angeles.
“The last thing you want to do is ask leading questions, ‘So you feel anxious today? So you’re scared you are going to lose your lunchbox again like you did last year?’ ” said Esposito, founder of Wired for Happy, a blog about mental health and wellness.
Esposito said parents should listen to their children, validate any concerns they might have and then help them focus on problem solving. For instance, if a child is worried about seeing another child who bullied them last year, a parent can ask the child, “If you do encounter Johnny who bullied you, who can you go to … what can you do? What can you say to Johnny?’ ” she said.
Also important is stressing that kids are not alone in feeling anxious.
“Especially for children who have a more anxious constitution, they tend to think, ‘I’m the only one going through this,’ or ‘I’m different, I’m weird and other people are calm and they can cope better,'” Esposito said.
Transitions from elementary to middle school school or middle to high school can be especially anxiety-inducing for children.
“This is where you are going to see some of your socially awkward kids really struggle,” said Esposito. “It can be really tough and I think that for parents to really talk with their kids about the transition and some of the things that they could expect, try to prepare them but also realize that this is just part of their natural progression and they do need to have an ability to reach an age appropriate independence level.”
The return to school is not just stressful for children. It’s stressful for us as parents, too. I’m already dreading the morning routine and getting everyone up, fed, and at school by 8:10 a.m. ET.
How we handle the stress goes a long way in helping our kids deal with the adjustment, Esposito said.
“If you have to get up earlier or you have to do some meditation … before you start your day, have your coffee in peace,” do it, she said.
“Whenever I’m working with a family, I always look at the adult because when you have more pronounced anxiety in children, it’s usually because there’s an anxiety issue with the parent. I always say, ‘I’m a product of this, but anxious adults raise anxious children.'”
So, what are some of the specific things kids are anxious about before the start of school? Here’s what we learned from 17 elementary schoolers:
1. “I’m anxious for all the homework, all the tests, if I’m going to be with my friends or not, and what teacher I’m getting.” — Keira
2. “I’m anxious for homework, (the) test, if I’m smart enough (and) what teacher I’m going to have.” — Rachel
3. “I am anxious about homework.” — Maia
4. “Even though I’m not anxious, if I was anxious, I would be anxious for homework.” — Jaiden
5. “I’m anxious about the fourth and fifth grade relay (during track and field meets). It’s supposed to be harder and more competitive than third grade.” — Hattie
6. “I’m anxious about the tests because they are supposed to be more challenging. I’m also anxious for the fourth and fifth grade relay team because there is more competition.” — Ella
7. “I’m anxious for the first day of school.” — Ian
8. “I”m worried about my grades. I’m also worried about writing six-page (essays)! And the state test! — Carina
9. “I’m worried about the state test even though it’s just a practice it could be a little hard.” — Sidney
10. “I’m nervous about new friends and new teachers and homework.” — Benjamin
11. “I’m really nervous that I don’t know anybody at my new school.” — Isabelle
12. “I am nervous about my new teacher.” — Bethany
13. “I am nervous about H.W. (homework) because I don’t have anything to look forward to.” — William
14. “I am nervous about H.W.” — Charles
15. “I’m nervous about what teacher I’m getting.” — Lily
16. “What I’m nervous about is I’m going to a new school so I won’t know anyone. I’m also nervous/anxious about the fourth grade schoolwork being too hard.” — Alice