Features

Beating the back-to-school blues

07 September 2017

The arrival of the new school year can be a difficult time for children, reports Phil Harris.

Back to school

‘I kept crying during the summer holidays, and in the week before school started I cried lots of times every day. I always felt nervous and sick inside. I kept thinking about it at night and couldn’t get to sleep.’

Annabel is 12 and goes to school in Hertfordshire. She is starting her second year of secondary school but remembers clearly how she felt 12 months ago. ‘I was really worried and scared,’ she says.

‘My sister was at the school already and so I wasn’t worried about things like how I would get to school, but she is clever and I felt like I was going to be the worst in the class at everything.

‘I was also really worried about what the other children were going to be like. I knew some friends from primary school would be there too, but I didn’t know the other new girls. I thought they might not like me and they might be nasty to me.’

Annabel is of course not alone in finding the idea of returning to school, and particularly changing schools, a frightening prospect.

Figures from Childline (2016) show that in 2015-16 the charity carried out 15,470 counselling sessions about problems at school (up 12% since 2014-15). The top three issues relating to school were exam worries (27%), not wanting to return to school (13%), and problems with teachers (14%).

Children talked about disliking school or not wanting to go back to school in more than 2000 Childline counselling sessions. Young people told the counsellors they felt lonely and isolated about school. Childline says these feelings led to intense feelings of low mood and even reports of self-harming behaviours.

Children are not the only ones to feel the pressure. A study of parents carried out by the Professional Association for Children and Early Years (PACEY) found that more than two-thirds of parents were anxious about their child starting school for the first time, with their ability to make friends the most common concern (36%) (PACEY, 2015). One in four parents stated they did not receive enough advice from schools and local authorities on how to make the transition.

This is happening against the background of rising concerns about the mental welfare of children as schools focus increasingly on results.

A poll of teachers by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT, 2017) revealed that a fifth had been in contact with children aged four to seven with mental health issues, and 35% had seen problems in children aged seven to 11.

All this comes as no surprise to school nurse Claire Elwell, who says that anxiety about moving to new schools is particularly problematic for children. She says: ‘Most children’s fears are largely around transitions like reception and Year 7.

‘Some kids are just fine and take it in their stride whereas some are very anxious and struggle. And sometimes the parents pass on their own anxieties.’

Children of disengaged parents are more likely to have problems, but this is not always the case, and all children can be affected.

Annabel adds: ‘My mum and dad kept trying to talk to me about it but I was too scared to talk about it and say I was worried. So I kept it hidden from them and just cried in bed or in the bathroom where no one could see me.’


Tips for tackling the school blues

  • Develop a routine: Encourage parents to organise bags, uniform and books in good time to avoid a rush and panic in the morning.
  • A good night’s sleep: Sleep clears the mind, improves memory, aids concentration and eases stress.
  • Eating well: A balanced diet feeds the mind, supports the immune system and boosts energy levels. Breakfast is particularly important.
  • Be themselves: Parents should encourage the child to be who they are. This will help them to find like-minded friends.
  • Take it a day at a time: They can try keeping a diary or pinning a list of their tasks or activities to a noticeboard.
  • Exams aren’t everything: For older children, it is important to explain that adult life will teach them it’s the people who are motivated and determined who succeed. All they can do is try their best. Not every career involves top grades.
  • Be positive: The child should be encouraged to see the next phase (whether it’s starting a new school or a new term) as an opportunity and a stepping stone rather than an obstacle.
  • Open up: If school is really getting the child down, parents should explain that they are not alone. Talking to a friend, parent or someone they trust can be a weight lifted.

Common anxieties

Clearly such fears are common. Children may worry about who their new teachers will be, how they will adapt, and if they can cope with more challenging work. As children grow older, each new year brings new challenges.

Anxieties can start young, with nursery and primary school children often experiencing separation anxiety. Then, as they age, their fears may be around academic or exam pressure. They may be anxious about social interaction generally – frightened of being alone and having no friends at break or during lunch.

Fears about public speaking and body image can be highlighted and magnified at school, such as getting changed for PE in front of new classmates.

Anxiety may be triggered by negative peer or teacher interactions, such as bullying or fear of a strict teacher, or by academic pressure. In addition, some children may also be dealing with difficulties at home, which may affect their confidence generally.

Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive of the mental health charity Anxiety UK, says these anxieties can have a detrimental effect on a child’s overall wellbeing: ‘They may cause physical symptoms such as problems sleeping, feelings of nausea, shaking, sweating or hyperventilating. Focus and engagement in lessons can be impacted and affect academic performance and recurring anxieties can have a strong impact on a child’s self-esteem.

‘The child may also want to avoid situations that cause anxiety altogether and can end up in some cases missing school time. This truancy can lead to further stress and pressure within the family.’

What parents can do

There is much that parents can do to help tackle the back-to-school blues (see box below).

Spotting the signs of anxiety is important. The child may report feeling sick before school, as feelings of nausea are a common symptom of anxiety. This may escalate into the child constantly feeling ill and wanting to take time off school.

Other signs include crying, dizziness, digestive problems or bed soiling. There may be changes of behaviour, such as becoming quieter and more reclusive.

Nicky says: ‘Parents should be encouraged to sit down with their child and try to find out the cause of their anxieties and unhappiness.

‘They can also arrange a meeting with a member of staff to discuss anxieties around class and strategies to support these within school.’

Parents should also be watchful of passing on their own anxieties to the child.

UK school stats

What professionals can do

Nicky adds that teachers should be aware of the variety of factors that can cause anxieties and be supportive to reduce anxieties where possible.

‘Anxieties in school can be triggered by where a child sits in a classroom, who a child is grouped with for activities, the types of questions they can answer on the spot, use of toilets, where they get changed for PE or how they move from class to class. These are just some small factors that can be discussed and adapted to significantly reduce anxieties.’

Many schools have adopted tactics such as having a transition day to allow children to meet their new teachers and ask questions, arranging visits to feeder primary schools and having dedicated members of staff to provide pastoral care for new pupils.

Unsurprisingly, there are regional variations, and some schools will do home visits and link with families and children before transition while others do not have this capacity. Emotional support for children also varies, with some schools being able to provide onsite counsellors.

Meanwhile, school nurses can ensure they have details of support services available to young people and provide a safe supportive environment for children to reach out for support.

Claire Elwell says: ‘Professionals can offer drop-in sessions or talks during the school’s transition planning days where parents, kids and other professionals are present to promote resilience and positive parenting.

‘Spotting the anxious child who is either quiet, almost invisible, and the anxious child who is ‘naughty’ is where professionals can come in. In my experience there is usually a story, whether it be attachment, parental poor health, parenting issues, bereavement or substance misuse.’

Clearly school nurses are best placed to offer emotional support to children and young people when the new term begins, but their capacity to do so is determined by what they are contracted to provide. In many cases they no longer provide personal, social and health education.

And, of course, services across the country have been hit hard by years of grinding austerity cuts.

Claire adds that school nurses can offer intervention or refer to specialist provision where this is needed. ‘I always offer to complete a health assessment, and this often picks up issues around poor diet, poor sleeping, limited exercise, too much Xbox, bed wetting, issues around body changes and sexual health.

‘Nurses are good at normalising worries and straight taking with kids. It never ceases to amaze me that some of my non-nursing colleagues and friends shy away from talking about emotions with their own kids.’

As for Annabel, things got much better for her when school started. ‘I met some really nice girls who were into the same things as me, and the work wasn’t as hard as I thought. I realised that I didn’t need to worry so much.’

 

Picture credit | iStock


References

Childline, NSPCC. (2016) Childline annual review 2015-16. See: nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/annual-reports/childline-annual-review-2015-16.pdf (accessed 14 August 2017).

NASUWT. (2017) Schools need support to deal with mental health upsurge among pupils. See: nasuwt.org.uk/article-listing/schools-need-support-mental-health-upsurge-pupils.html (accessed 14 August 2017).

PACEY. (2015) Parents anxious about children starting school. See: pacey.org.uk/news-and-views/news/archive/2015-news/august-2015/parents-anxious-about-children-starting-school (accessed 14 August 2017).

The Children’s Society. (2015) The good childhood report 2015. See: childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/TheGoodChildhoodReport2015.pdf (available 14 August 2017).

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