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Navigating the new: Supporting children through the start of the year

Term 1 is underway, and the start of the new school year brings with it all kinds of exciting possibilities. It can also be a time of uncertainty though, as students settle into a new grade, new routines, new subjects and classroom structures, or a new school entirely.

These sorts of changes can be a source of stress and anxiety for many young people, particularly if they are already feeling some pressures from outside their learning environment. In knowing what signs to look out for, though, we can all provide students with safe opportunities to share their stress and uncertainties, navigate the new and embrace change as a positive thing.

Why can stress increase at the beginning of the school year?

Every young person is unique — and so too are the reasons they might be feeling more stress and anxiety at the start of the new school year. For many this stress stems from a fear of the unknown. After having spent the past year building a sense of belonging in their previous learning environment, a new year means having to reset this sense of security — and adapt to new routines, new subjects, new teaching styles and, possibly, new fellow students.

As students make their way through the school levels, they might feel more academic pressure — such as when they are making the transition from primary to secondary school. Reflecting on new expectations from teachers, parents and their own standards can make the prospect of another year feel like an obstacle, instead of an exciting opportunity.

A potential shift in their classmates or friendships could also see an increase in anxiety. Your children might be anxious about not having their friends in their class, or the need to make new friends entirely.

What are some of the signs to look out for?

While no two students are likely to have the exact same response to stress and anxiety, there are certain signs to look out for. On a physical level, fidgeting and an inability to sit still, biting fingernails or choosing to isolate themselves in their room could suggest your child is feeling uneasy about this time of the year.

You might also notice them having strong emotional reactions, such as easily getting angry or upset. Changes in their sleeping and eating habits can also be a sign of stress and anxiety — as is repeatedly asking questions or commenting on settling into the school year. These shifts suggest feelings of upheaval and uncertainty kicking in.

How do I support my child through change and newness?

There are several ways you can support your child or children through any anxiety they are feeling about change — with open communication being key to this support.

“There will always be things in our life that are beyond our control, but it’s important not to dwell on those and instead to look at what we can control when change happens.”

To help with this, try to create a ‘be there’ environment where your child feels comfortable to talk through how they are feeling and raise any questions or concerns they might have with you. Remember that children do not have the same perspective as adults just yet, so it is important not to downplay their worries.

Creating this sort of open, compassionate environment then gives you a platform to reframe change and how to respond to it. Some of the ways you might choose to do this could be:

  • Looking at what has changed overall, and breaking it into smaller, more manageable steps (for example, discussing how to prepare for a new subject, or which amenities they can make the most of on their new school campus);
  • Reminding your child that change can be tough and it is OK not to be OK sometimes — but they still get to choose what to focus on. Suggest naming three things that have gone well for them each day to gently encourage them to be kind with themselves;
  • Share your own experiences with anxiety over change and how you have navigated that stress. Ask your child for their perspective, to encourage a positive, problem-solving perspective. Present change as a chance to learn and grow.

Ultimately, connecting your child with the right support can help them feel safe and confident to navigate change. Encourage them to connect with buddies or mentors at school, such as teachers, Heads of House or the School Nurses and Psychologists — or reach out to family members, or a sports coach they feel comfortable with.

The beginning of a new school year can be tough for young people for all kinds of reasons, but they do not have to worry on their own. By recognising why Term 1 can bring feelings of stress and anxiety and knowing what signs to look out for, we can all provide young people with a safe, supportive environment to see change as a positive, so that they embrace the entire school year with confidence, curiosity and optimism.