School fears are more common among introverted children and those who tend to be especially clingy. To a small child, school can seem a daunting and dangerous place: A massive building upon which hundreds of rambunctious, high-energy kids descend each day in a scene of disorganized chaos. But fears about school can also be triggered by several other things.
How you handle school fears depends on what specifically is behind this anxiety. So here are the most common triggers and some ideas for how to address each one:
*See also: Separation anxiety in children
General anxiety about school
For many kids, the school setting itself can lead to fears and phobias. If A) Your child has always been especially clingy, or B) is slow to warm up to new settings, or C) Prefers the familiar and likes everything to be structured in a certain way, or D) they are natural worriers; they may be prone to general school-related fears.
This anxiety arises because some children view school as a place far away and disconnected from their normal lives. It’s also a formal rather than informal setting. So this triggers the same type of anxiety you might feel in leaving home to prepare for an overseas trip. Children may worry that they’ll forget something they need, or fear that something might happen to their clothes or property while there. They might worry about missing the bus and never making it home, or fear being stranded should you forget to pick them up. They may worry about how they’ll manage if they get sick at school, or dream up situations in which they really need to get to the bathroom but the teacher won’t let them. Whatever form these fears take, it essentially boils down to kids being afraid of being trapped or stranded in this formal, far-from-home setting.
Helping kids overcome their fears about school
- Talk these anxieties over. Ask kids to give you their worst-case scenarios and fears about what might happen. Then go over these different “nightmare” scenarios and talk them through, discussing what they could do in such a situation.
- With elementary school kids, it’s also helpful if you can meet with the teacher and/or other school staff to discuss these fears with your child present, so that they learn that behind the formalities are ordinary people who will help them when they need it.
- Put these anxieties in perspective by talking about the worst that can happen. Let’s say they did lose something; how could it be replaced? If they forget a field trip permission slip, could you be called to give verbal permission? Help them understand that these fears are probably overblown, and that each one could be worked through.
- In extreme cases of school phobia, it may be possible to arrange a midday phone call to a parent in order to manage a child’s anxiety. This helps many kids. However, you should make this privilege dependent upon their cooperation in trying to manage school fears. Also keep in mind that schools may require a child to be diagnosed with social phobia or an anxiety disorder before they accommodate such a perk. But if a child is really struggling, they likely qualify.
School fears caused by social phobia
Children with social phobia are going to have a difficult time in school settings. To them, every school day is a day filled with triggers for anxiety. They may fear saying the wrong thing or doing something stupid. You can read more on social phobia in kids in our children and anxiety section.
Bullying or abusive teachers
If the fear seems to have come upon your child suddenly, it’s important you ask questions to see if it’s related to something that is happening at school. Often times a child may come to fear school because they are being bullied, or because they have an overly punitive or verbally abusive teacher. It’s estimated that around 2 or 3 percent of teachers are verbally abusive towards their students. (Holm-Christensen, 1989)
- Start by asking kids if anything is happening that makes them not like school. If you can’t discern a reason, try to schedule a meeting with school staff to explain the sudden anxiety and see if they have an idea about what might be causing it.
- See our bullying book for more information on signs and symptoms of bullying and tips of addressing the problem if it’s occurring.
- Before you get too suspicious of a teacher or go off making wild accusations about abuse, remember that it’s common for kids to misinterpret and overreact to a teacher’s scolding or disciplinary actions. An especially sensitive and normally well-behaved child who is rebuked once by a teacher may develop a catastrophic interpretation of that event. In the same way that kids tend to be better-behaved for other adults than they are at home, being disciplined by a teacher in a formal setting can take on a greater significance in a child’s mind than it should. This sense of shame could cause a sudden dislike of school. It’s also quite possible that a teacher’s demands are perfectly appropriate, and it’s the child who needs correcting. Kids may perceive a teacher as “out to get them” simply for requiring they behave in a certain way or do good work.
- If your child does have issues with a particular teacher that may be legitimate, talk with the school to see if there’s an option to switch classes. Most elementary schools have several classes for each grade, though they don’t always like to switch students.
Perfectionism/fear of failure
Children may also come to fear school if they pick up a perfectionist attitude or fear parental wrath should they not succeed. They dread the possibility that they might not measure up, and so school becomes an anxiety provoking place. (See next heading: fear of failure in children.)