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  • Gina Heumann

5 Tips to Ease Back-to-School Anxiety with Your Challenging Child

Updated: Aug 13, 2019

Thinking back on my childhood, I remember planning ahead and excitedly anticipating the start of the new school year. I loved the thought of decorating my locker, meeting new friends, and shopping for brand new school supplies. The new year was going to be so full of exciting possibilities!

But not every kid feels that way, as I learned when I became a mother to a kid with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Transitions, like the beginning or end of the school year, were actually downright dreadful. In fact, really any change in routine or loss of control could be enough to drastically sidetrack our otherwise well-scheduled day and turn my son into the Tasmanian devil. But the beginning (or end) of a school year was the worst.

It isn't just kids with RAD. Kids on the Autism Spectrum thrive on routine. Kids with sensory processing disorder get disoriented when sights, sounds, or activities change abruptly - and in middle or high school, the throngs of kids in the hall and sounds of slamming lockers are enough to send them over the edge. Heck, even kids with regular old anxiety can struggle.

I discovered that my husband, who was mostly a neurotypical child, actually didn’t sleep for days before the new school year began. In fact, he didn’t sleep on Sunday nights before a new week. Apparently it also took him months to give up wearing pants in the heat of the summer in favor of shorts and then took just as long to ditch the shorts and wear pants in the winter.

So if you have a kid with transition issues, I have five ideas to help you smooth the transitions as much as possible. These are not foolproof, but might give you a couple strategies to try and ease your way into a new school year:


  1. Focus on the positive. When talking about the new school year, give them positive things to look forward to, things that make school worthwhile to them. One of my kids was really into soccer, so we’d talk about how fun it would be to have recess and a big group of kids to kick the ball around with every day. My other kid loves music, so we’d remind him of chorus and band and how many of those friends he’ll get to see. Heck, even reminding him of “Pizza Day” in the cafeteria was enough to spark the memories of structure and routine. Think of their interests and really play up the activities that will bring them the most comfort.

  2. Get Familiar. If at all possible, arrange go to the school ahead of time in your own private time slot. Walk through the schedule. Locate their classrooms. Find their locker. Practice opening and closing the combination lock. Meet as many teachers as you can. It’s less big and scary when it’s no longer a mystery place and they have an idea of what to expect. And if you can avoid doing this amongst the chaos of hundreds of other kids, that will go a long way in helping their comfort level.

  3. Shop for School Supplies Online. One of the worst days of my life was the public tantrum that occurred after back-to-school shopping at Target. Why? Because kids lie mine get completely overwhelmed by having too many choices in front of them, too many people in the aisles, and too much noise. Also the act of back-to-school shopping can induce anxiety for them. You can still involve them in the process of back-to-school shopping by choosing backpacks and folders online. Nowadays you can even use an app to place your order and drive by and have it delivered to your car. This would have been a Godsend to me years ago!

  4. Teach Coping Skills. One of my favorite ways to calm my anxiety is by doing a “5-senses Scavenger Hunt”. Take a deep breath, and then look around the room and identify five things you see. Touch four different items that have texture. (I would even give him a key ring with 5 different fabric samples attached, so he could touch something furry, satiny, rough, and bumpy…) Listen for three different sounds. See if you can smell two different scents. And pay attention to any taste in your mouth. Usually this simple act of thinking and using your senses can calm the nerves. You can also have them cross their arms and tap with the opposite hand while taking a deep breath and thinking happy thoughts. My friend calls this the “butterfly hug”. This simple technique of bilateral stimulation actually rewires the brain and calms the nerves.

  5. Cut them some slack. If your child suffers from anxiety in any way, remember they can’t really control it. The amygdala, or reptilian part of the brain, is telling them to fight or flee, so it’s actually warning them of potential danger. No amount of telling them their thoughts are unreasonable will calm them down. If your kid, like my first one, holds it together all day long at school and then falls apart immediately upon entering the house, thank your lucky stars that they feel safe enough to unload at home, and that the teachers aren’t aware of the bad behaviors.

The transition to a new school year can seem daunting for parents of challenging kids, but by using a few of these tips, maybe you can ease the pain. Most RAD parents I know, after the initial transition period is over, are thrilled to have the kids back in a routine where they feel more in control. And let’s be honest… sometimes we parents just relish a few hours without them!

CHEERS to the new school year

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