Addressing Back-to-School Anxiety: An Interview with a Veteran School Psychologist

As a teacher with summers “off”, August has always felt like a long Sunday. June is the excitement of a Friday with the whole weekend ahead. July is a Saturday with plenty of time to relax, reconnect with old friends, explore new places, and maybe catch up on DIY projects at home. As the calendar flips to August, however, the realization of - and the anxiety associated with - returning to school becomes apparent.

Anxiety associated with returning to school each fall is real – for students and teachers alike. Google the words ‘back to school anxiety’ and you’ll get about 181 million results! Thanks anyway, Google, but I had the honor of interviewing Mary Jo Tein, a school psychologist in Minnesota with valuable, firsthand knowledge to help us navigate the beginning of a new school year. With 38 years of experience in the field of education as a fourth-grade teacher, a special education teacher, an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) specialist, and a school psychologist - she is truly one in a million.

What behavioral trends have you noticed among students as they begin a new school year?
I think anxiety plays such a big part. So many changes in daily routines, new relationships, etc. Kids are expected to learn and adjust to so many new things in a short period of time.

How do students show or express their anxiety?
Refusing to go to school, tantrums, difficulty sleeping, tearfulness, acting out, regression…

Writer’s side note: I recently came across an article that includes adults reflecting on phrases they used as children that were code words for ‘I’m anxious’. Some of the phrases include: “I have a headache.” “I don’t want to!” “You do it.” The article was a good reminder that children often don’t know how to identify and express anxious feelings. Sometimes anxiety can look like avoidant and/or defiant behaviors. Check out the full article here: 14 Phrases Kids Said that were Code Words for ‘I’m Anxious’.

Have you noticed an increase with anxiety levels among children during your tenure as a school psychologist?
Yes. I think children are experiencing an increased level of trauma and stress related to more at-risk family situations (divorce, substance abuse, unemployment, etc.) causing an increased level of anxiety. Too much time with technology and not enough quality time with family are possible factors as well. Proper nutrition, an adequate amount of sleep, and structure in kids’ lives are so important for our students to thrive.

What steps can classroom teachers and other education professionals take to support students with anxiety associated with going back to school?
Be aware of the high stress nature of school, and work to establish positive relationships. Keep things calm and positive. Reassure them that it will get better. Start to establish routines so kids know what to expect. Finally, teach expectations, rather than just expecting kids to know what to do.

Another side note: I found that having students write or illustrate how they’re feeling about being back in school validates their feelings and helps them move forward. To transition from summer to fall, I created this writing activity, “Goodbye, Summer! Hello, Fall!” for my students that can be tailored for a range of grade levels.

What advice do you have for teachers who feel anxious about returning to school?
Teachers need to be cognizant of the stressors placed on them – and be gentle with themselves. Just like with the students, there are emotional demands associated with a new schedule and new faces – students and parents. Try to go with the flow and do something fun away from school (go to the Minnesota State Fair!). Exercise or do whatever works best to release stress. Things will get better soon as the new routine is established. Teachers often want to do it all and get everything done. We all must let things go - and that is okay.

Final side note: Mary Jo’s wise words reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “You can do anything, but not everything.” -David Allen

May the rest of August feel more like a Friday-than a Sunday-with the anticipation and excitement of the new school year ahead. Best wishes to you and your students for a smooth transition from summer to fall!


Jill Rockwell
Jill has over 13 years of experience as a licensed teacher in the areas of Special Education, Reading Education, and Health Education. She embraces diversity and has worked with students in grades K-12 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. Jill completed her Master of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls while teaching full time. She fully understands the soaring demands of today’s teachers. Her courses are designed to maximize the time of all educators by providing engaging, meaningful, and applicable activities which can be used to enhance teaching practices. She focuses on research-based best practices and technology integration throughout her own instructional practices. Together with her husband and two young boys, Jill enjoys traveling, biking and the changing seasons of the great outdoors in Wisconsin.