The beginning of a new school year is a time filled with mixed emotions for many young Aussies. While it offers the promise of new experiences, friends, and opportunities, it also carries the stress that can come with academic performance, social pressures, and having a more demanding schedule.
For many children and adolescents, these worries can cause emotional distress and discomfort, with one in five children aged between three and 17 feeling anxious about attending school or kindergarten. To help children and young adults adjust during the back-to-school period, it's crucial that educators provide the support, understanding, and guidance that empowers them to thrive.
Building Self-confidence Through Acknowledgment
For many young children, a lack of self-confidence is a major catalyst for back-to-school anxiety. The pressure to excel academically and socially can be difficult for many students to handle. One of the best ways to help them cope with these feelings is by boosting their self-confidence.
Acknowledging and validating a student’s efforts, no matter how big or small they might be, is at the core of confidence building. If we only recognise a child’s hard work when they ace a test, score well on an exam, or win an award, we unintentionally send the message that their worth relies on arbitrary measures of success.
Instead, we should be celebrating every effort that a child makes, whether that be studying hard for a test (regardless of their final score), getting their homework done, or even making a new friend.
The importance of receiving recognition is backed up by a recent Gallup study, which found that Gen Z and younger Millennials are 73% more likely to desire recognition "at least a few times a month." The reason for this is simple: frequent recognition can serve as a morale boost, inspiring young individuals to believe in themselves and their abilities.
Encouraging them to take pride in their accomplishments, however minor they may seem, can instil the confidence they need to tackle the challenges of the school year with determination and enthusiasm.
Comparison is the Thief of Validation
It's not uncommon for older generations to recount their own school experiences with phrases like "back when I went to school…" While these stories may be well-intentioned, they can inadvertently make children feel as though they aren’t allowed to feel stressed, overwhelmed, or worried about their unique school experience.
The challenges faced by each generation are unique and not directly comparable. When talking to a student, it's more beneficial to lead with empathy in order to validate their feelings and experiences. While it’s undoubtedly true that children today have a vastly different school experience than generations before, it’s important to remember that their struggles are real and can cause serious emotional turmoil if they are left unsupported.
To reassure and support students through their anxiety, we must create a nurturing environment where their emotions are acknowledged and valued without judgment or comparison. Only then will our children feel comfortable expressing their concerns openly and seeking guidance without the fear of being dismissed or misunderstood.
Encouraging Boundaries with Technology
In today's digital age, young people are constantly connected to the online world at home and at school. This level of exposure to all types of media can lead to issues related to self-esteem, cyberbullying, and an inability to never truly ‘switch off’. Add in the pressure that many kids feel to be constantly online in order to fit in, and the use of technology can easily spiral out of control.
With this in mind, it’s crucial that we empower young individuals to set boundaries with technology and social media. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is by modelling a healthy relationship with technology in our classrooms. If we tell our children to put down their phones only to see their teacher using theirs five minutes later, we send the message that being connected at all times is normal and healthy.
Instead, we need to hold ourselves accountable and practice what we preach in order to demonstrate that switching off is enjoyable and rewarding. Setting boundaries with positivity and openness is important, as it will give your students space to talk about their worries – for example, feeling left out if they’re not online with their friends. From here, we can further create a safe and comfortable space where they can be truly present and at ease.
Planning Your Days
One of the most effective ways to tackle back-to-school anxiety is through organisation and planning. Fear of the unknown can exacerbate the fear of going to school, especially for children who may be entering their first year of primary or secondary school or who may have recently moved to a new school altogether. Giving young people a clear sense of what lies ahead can help them feel more in control and give them the confidence they need to feel at ease.
For students who are worried about their workload, helping to set up and maintain a calendar that keeps track of exams, assignments, and extracurricular activities is a great place to start. This will help them avoid the feeling that everything is piling up and empower them to stay on top of their responsibilities.
A well-structured to-do list can also work wonders. It not only helps students prioritise tasks but also offers a sense of accomplishment when items are ticked off. It's a small but powerful tool that can boost confidence and provide a sense of direction.
Explore Activities Outside of School
As young people prepare to face the challenges of the school year, it's essential to recognise the importance of balance. While a child’s schooling is incredibly important, so is creating a rich and full life outside of the school environment. This is backed up by a recent Harvard Business Review study, which found that spending more time on hobbies and leisure activities can improve one's overall wellbeing and reduce stress.
Encouraging your students to explore hobbies can not only reduce stress and improve wellbeing, but can open them up to a whole new world of opportunity. It can teach them new social skills, help them develop a sense of identity, and even give them the chance to find something they’re truly passionate about. Whether it's art, music, sports, or, in my case, rock climbing, the most important factor is that children find a hobby they love and that makes them feel good. These activities can serve as a form of self-expression and an escape from the daily grind of schoolwork.
With the right support and guidance, we can help students navigate back-to-school anxiety with confidence and resilience. Regardless of whether you’re a parent, teacher, or sibling, as role models we can tackle school anxiety and empower students to thrive both inside and outside of the classroom.
Youth Leadership Academy Australia (YLAA) is a youth-led organisation dedicated to empowering young individuals to lead themselves, schools, and communities for a positive future. Through impactful in-person events and tailor-made school programs, we provide accessible leadership opportunities across Australia.
Wil Massara is a young social entrepreneur, whose journey began at the age of eleven. At 15, he founded the Youth Leadership Academy Australia (YLAA), revolutionising youth leadership nationwide. YLAA is now the largest youth-led provider, positively impacting over 30,000 lives and earning the trust of 1000+ schools.