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Starting School: 5 ways to help an anxious child

By Dr. Helen Andrews Getting Ready for School Whenever you feel your child is getting anxious, bring them in close, get down to their level, listen to what they have to say and reassure them. Summer is well and truly here and it won’t be long till September is upon us. Across the country four year olds and their parents will be feeling excited and maybe a little worried about starting ‘big school’. Some children will take it in their stride, whilst others will find it harder. The same goes for mums and dads. What can we do to help this important milestone go as smoothly as possible?

1. Make school seem more familiar

We are all more likely to feel anxious when faced with something unfamiliar. Your child is likely to have had the opportunity to visit their school during the summer term, which should help build familiarity. You can build on this by walking past the school frequently and talking about what it is like.

Make the most of books - there are many about starting school that you can read together. Answer any questions your child has, and acknowledge any worries they might express, whilst also reassuring them. For example, you could say, “Yes, it might feel a bit scary at the start, but soon you will love it!” or “I’ll miss you too, but I’ll love hearing all about your day when I pick you up”.

2. Lead By Example

Young children pick up a lot of their feelings from the important people around them. If you feel anxious, and talk about your concerns in front of them, then they will share those anxieties. If you talk positively, they will follow suit. For example, you could help them feel positive by saying, “I’m so excited about you starting school, you’ll have such a great time!”

3. Help set the correct expectations

Schools vary but you are likely to have a week or two of part-time attendance. This can be helpful in terms of settling in but can create confusion for the child about what to expect from school. Likewise, after a few days, children can say that they have ‘done school’ now and don’t need to go again! To help them know what to expect, explain to your child what they will need to do that day and the next day.

4. Look out for signs of anxiety and respond appropriately

Whenever you feel your child is getting anxious, bring them in close, get down to their level, listen to what they have to say and reassure them. When it comes to the time to separate, give them a short, clear and positive message of love, confidence and a promise that you will return. “Time for you to go in now. I love you, have fun and I’ll see you at the end of school.” A quick hug, wave and hand them over. Try not to get drawn into long routines. A few tears some days is normal but if your child is regularly very distressed, find a teacher or teaching assistant that you feel confident with and come up with a plan between you. Stick to it for a week or two before reviewing, if necessary.

5. Chat about their day

This is likely to be the first time that you don’t know what your child has done during the day. You will have much less contact with the teacher than you are used to at nursery. Encourage your child to share their day. They may be too tired on the walk home – so maybe chat about it over dinner or at bedtime. Not only do you get to share in the ups and downs with them, and feel closer to them, you will also be setting up patterns of talking that are important, but often lost, for the years ahead.  

  Dr Helen AndrewsDr Helen Andrews is on the Toddle About Panel of Experts. She is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working with children and young people. Through her business, Family Matters in Warwickshire, she helps parents when they can see that their child is struggling with their emotions, behaviour or development. Contact Helen on 01564 795337 or find out more at