Is your child anxious about starting school? Here’s what a local psychologist says can help

Life is full of big changes and one of the earliest in life is starting school for the first time.

For many kids, it's the first time extended period of time they'll be away from parents and other loved ones and it can trigger separation anxiety.

Dr. Rick Ellis, a certified clinical psychologist with Spectrum Psychological and Neurotherapy Services, says it's completely normal, especially in Hampton Roads where there's a large military population and a large number of children starting at new schools.

To help a child adjust to starting a new grade or starting school for the first time, he says it's important to socialize them and teach them how to meet new people.

“We don’t want to protect the kids all the time. We don’t want to rush them out of a stressful environment," said Dr. Ellis. "We want to model good coping skills for them. We want to help them deal with, ‘Yes, it’s going to be difficult, but you can deal with it. You’ve done it before’."

If a child is worried about starting school, he suggests trying to divert attention from the negative aspects of the classroom and instead keeping it positive and making goals.

Click here for more tips on how to win the school year

“Make a game out of it. 'Let’s see, who’s the funniest kid in the class? What’s the classroom like? What’s the teacher like?' So you come home and report those," said Dr. Ellis. "They’re thinking about I’ve got a job to do and I’ve gotta share it with mommy when I get or home or daddy when I get home.”

Another step that can help kids anxious and nervous about starting school is getting them used to the physical space. Dr. Ellis says it can be as simple as visiting the school's playground ahead of the new year or, the week before, trying to set up a meeting with teachers and other school staff.

“It’s important for parents to make those arrangements to make sure they’re there and they get to meet the teacher, whether formal and part of a program for the school or whether they do it informally," he said. "The more the child is familiar with the physical environment and what’s going on, the more comfortable and safe and secure they’re going to feel.”

For kids still struggling to adapt to the new space and being away from home, Dr. Ellis suggests speaking with a school counselor first. The next step, he says, is visiting a psychologist.

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