TLC Leadership Academy easing back-to-school anxiety for students

TLC Leadership Academy’s Rebecca Walker discusses practical strategies for helping students who struggle with back to school transitions. (Image courtesy TLC Leadership Academy)

For many, the arrival of September means cooler weather, the return of pumpkin spice everything and the excitement of the “back to school” season. The return to school is usually punctuated by the purchase of new fall clothes, shiny new school supplies, and the excitement of new class schedules and seeing friends again.

However, for some, the return to school can create or elevate anxiety. Significant school anxiety can lead to school refusal and poor school performance and usually occurs around the time of a transition, such as the start of a new school year, entrance into middle or high school, or following a move or relocation.

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Signs that a child may be experiencing anxiety about school can include complaints of physical ailments such as headaches or stomach aches, requests to stay home due to illness or excessive visits to the nurses office while at school. Behavioral changes such as not wanting to discuss school or the events of the day, decreased class participation or interest in school activities, or an increase in negative comments about attending school. These can lead to outright refusal to leave the house in the morning. These behaviors can be quite concerning to parents and if not intervened upon early enough, can begin to effect school performance.

What parents can do:

Keep a connection to school in summer months. Encourage reading or practicing of math or another skill. If anxiety is related to a deficit in a particular subject area consider tutoring to reinforce the concepts learned over the year and to build confidence as the coming year approaches. Keeping engaged in social activities is important as well. For students with social anxiety, a long summer break with little social interaction or isolation will increase the difficulty of returning to school in the fall. Encourage kids to invite friends over or to plan outings throughout the summer. In some cases, a structured activity may work well, such as a summer camp teen group activity. Many libraries or community centers have teen groups for various activities and interests in the summer months. At TLC’s Leadership Academy, summer activities are often discussed at the end of a school year and involve the student and parents. Resources are provided for camps, counseling services, tutoring, teen groups and other summer activities in an effort to continue the progress that was made during the school year and foster continued improvement.

Discuss your child’s concerns with them. This may seem obvious, but in a world where we are all rushed and focused on a multitude of things, an honest conversation about specifically what concerns your child about school is paramount. We are quick to offer words of support such as “you don’t need to worry” or “everything will work out”. However, for kids with anxiety this is not sufficient in easing their minds. Taking time to determine specific concerns and address them goes much further. Creating an open line of communication in which children feel comfortable voicing their concerns facilitates progress and strengthens their feeling of support and connectedness. At TLC Leadership Academy, we often discuss students’ concerns during the enrollment meeting and encourage parent or student communication of these concerns throughout the summer months or at the beginning of school. We have a strong focus on rapport building and creating relationships at TLC. We believe that a relationship with at least one adult in the building is an excellent way to build the feeling of community and connectedness at school. A mentor relationship between staff and students is often inherent in our environment because of our low staff to student ratio, open environment and focus on building relationships. New students are paired with a tenured student to create a peer mentor relationship to support the new student and to model leadership skills.

Request tours of a new school over the summer months. For those transitioning to a new school, or even moving up to a middle or high school, there are often days when students can tour the school and do a “walk though” of their schedule. This is often sufficient for most students, however, students with anxiety may have deeper concerns, such as the location of the bathroom, cafeteria or nurses office, or how much time they may need to get from class to class. Requesting an additional tour or time for students to have these concerns addressed can help with many of those concerns. The Leadership Academy often provides tours over the summer months. An empty building without students present with one or two staff members is often the best way for some of our new students to see the school for the first time. A welcome letter is sent to all students prior to the start of school and includes any changes from the previous year, such as new staff members and other information that may ease anxiety. Lastly, a major difference in the Leadership Academy is our design itself. Our open concept classroom setting often eases much of the anxiety of facing crowded hallways, the need to trek across a large school to make it to class on time, and the often intimidating setting of a cafeteria and bathrooms. There are no classrooms, hallways or lockers, but rather an open, welcoming and stimulating environment. For many, if it doesn’t “look” like school as they know it, it doesn’t “feel” like school as they know it.

Know when to involve professionals. When anxiety becomes severe enough to interfere with a student’s functioning in the school environment, or if school refusal becomes consistent, collaboration with professionals may be necessary. This may include your child’s school counselor or IEP team. If a child does not have an IEP, a parent may request and evaluation to determine if their child qualifies for support in the form of a 504 plan or Individualized Educational Plan. Both of these can offer support to a student whose anxiety is affecting their academic performance or ability to access their education. If a student has an IEP, reach out to the team to strategize a plan for how to best support the student and facilitate improvement. At TLC Leadership Academy we have a special education team committed to developing specially designed instruction to support students with a variety of emotional and learning needs. IEP meetings are held on a regular basis with the student, family and sending school district to collaborate on supports, monitor progress and make adjustments as needed.

Counseling may be another level of intervention necessary to support the student. Private counseling services can address the anxiety and support both the student and family. At TLC Leadership Academy, counseling services are integrated into our program. All students have access to individual and group counseling as well as psychiatric consultation and evaluation. Our PLUS program is an intensive mental health program embedded into our overall program in which students receive a high level of mental health support in the form of two group counseling sessions per day, weekly individual counseling and psychiatric evaluation. The PLUS program sets TLC Leadership Academy apart from other alternative education programs due to the high level of counseling available while still providing a full and enriching academic program concurrently. Academically students are able to engage in a full course schedule of daily academics and a variety of electives such as art, music and STEM courses, all while receiving the high level of emotional support and flexibility needed to help them be successful.

Parental engagement is encouraged at TLC Leadership Academy and is an important factor in student success. If you notice signs or symptoms of anxiety in your child, consider the above-mentioned suggestions. Students are most successful with parents and schools working together to formulate a plan and strategize for success.

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Rebecca Walker serves as the Assistant Director at The Leadership Academy. She has a M.Ed. in Counseling and is a certified school counselor for grades K-12, a nationally certified counselor and a certified Clinical Trauma professional.

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