As summer holidays roll on, offering kids a well-deserved break from schoolwork and deadlines, there’s a different story brewing for those about to start high school.
It’s a big leap, and new research shows it can be more than just new timetables and classrooms causing jitters. Apparently, diving into how the brain works might give us clues about which students are likely to feel the stress more acutely. With Term 1 just around the corner, parents and carers are being urged to be on the lookout.
If students seem a bit more anxious than usual about starting high school, it’s not just ‘typical nerves’. A new study by The University of the Sunshine Coast is a heads-up that getting ahead of these worries before day one could really make a difference.
Dr Michelle Kennedy is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Youth Mental Health program at the University’s Thompson Institute. She says students may already be worried about their new teacher, what friends will be in their class, or the academic challenges ahead.
“Anxiety about going back to school is very common, and more prevalent in primary aged students, particularly the younger ones,” Dr Kennedy said. “Since the COVID pandemic, it has been observed in older primary school students too.”
Dr Amanda Boyes, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Youth Mental Health) at the Thompson Institute, said psychological distress varied greatly in early adolescents over a 12-month period.
“This tells us that we should check in with young people about their mental health regularly,” Dr Boyes said.
“Of the 88 young people in our study, 50 reported experiencing moderate-to-high psychological distress at least once in the year. They also had the biggest shifts in their mental health.”
The research was part of the Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study, which recently marked a five-year milestone collecting data from participants aged 12 to 17, at four month intervals, meaning they now have complete five-year data sets.
What should parents be looking out for?
Every student handles nerves in their own way, but there are a few telltale signs that they might be feeling the high school jitters.
One of these could be showing more ‘clingy’ tendencies or repeatedly asking about their new teacher and class. You also might notice them being a bit more on their own, fiddling with things, or maybe even biting their fingernails.
It is also important to watch out for changes in how they sleep or if they’re getting a bit more teary or moody than usual. Additionally, if their eating habits take a turn, they’re struggling to nod off at night, or they’re suddenly having strong emotional reactions out of the blue, these could all be signs that high school nerves are kicking in.
1. Fear of the unknown – a fear of the unknown can challenge a child’s sense of belonging. Research shows a child’s sense of belonging plays an important role in emotional wellbeing, self-esteem and self-worth and engagement in learning.
2. New routines – adapting to a new teacher’s rules, routines, expectations, and teaching style can be unsettling for some students. Routine contributes to a sense of belonging in the classroom, so anxiety on this can settle after a few weeks.
3. Change of friendship groups – there may be some worry about making new friends and establishing new friendship groups, particularly for older primary students, as this is the age where they begin to develop a fear of social rejection.
4. Academic pressure – students may be worried about changes in academic expectations:
- From kindy to prep (more formal learning)
- From year 3-4 (upper primary requires more independence in learning)
- Year 6-7 (transitioning from primary school to high school)
5. Parent stress – students will sense a parent’s stress which may, in turn, heighten the student’s stress levels.
6. Prior negative experiences – a student’s past negative experiences or memories of school may be heightened if the student is anxious about transitioning to a new year level.
So how do we support their transition?
There is no one approach to help children transition to their new school class.
New experiences can also bring up some uncomfortable feelings, so it’s important we don’t try to drown out their concerns with positivity.
1. Open communication is crucial. If your child’s level of worry is a concern before school starts, notify the teacher. Make sure you listen to child’s concerns and validate how they are feeling.
2. Prepare for the new school year together. Choose new school items together and, if this makes them feel anxious, speak about your experiences of worry when starting anything new. For younger ones, you could place notes in their lunchbox, and for older children you could include a treat.
3. Every child deals with stress/worry differently. Before the start of the school year, establish their safe space at home or allow them to have extended time doing something they enjoy.
Transitioning to a new school year can be challenging for some primary school students for a variety of reasons, Dr Kennedy says.
“For most home is their safe space and, if not, establish a place that is, so they can work through their feelings in a supportive environment that validates what they are feeling.”