The anxiety of starting a new school can manifest itself in a variety of different and unexpected ways for children – including complaints of tummy aches, frequent to trips to the toilet during lessons, disruptive behaviour and even being physically sick in class.
As a school counsellor at two secondary schools in Cheshire, Rachel Vora has witnessed first-hand the range of reactions from young people struggling to cope during the first few days and weeks at their new school.
She knows that while many will soon adjust, these physical manifestations can also indicate other underlying problems – and that some will need further support.
“Starting a new school is a big change at that age. It’s a completely new environment. There can be worries about friendships, anxieties about managing pick up and drop off, the journey to school, not having their mobile phone during the day, where they need to be for their classes,” says our member Rachel.
“The shift of going to a new school can be a trigger if there are other things going on in their lives causing anxieties. For some, it can be the final straw.”
For some young people the thought of a new school, or a new term, is simply too much and they refuse to enter the building, get out of their parents’ cars or even leave their home in the morning.
Others make it to school, but then leave their lessons complaining of sickness, aches or pains, when there’s really no medical problem.
And some youngsters make frequent trips to the toilet, when they’re supposed to be sitting at their desks with the rest of their class.
“This is really about getting out of lessons where they feel anxious, uncomfortable or overwhelmed. They’re making excuses to get out of the classroom,” says Rachel.
Sometimes the first sign of the young person’s anxiety disruptive behaviour.
"We have to look beyond what they are doing and ask why they are doing it. It can be because they’re in an unfamiliar environment, they don’t know what else to do. This behaviour helps them to feel in control."
For many young people these signs of nerves and anxiety will disappear in a few weeks as they adapt to their new school.
“If this doesn’t disappear after the first few weeks, then we’d often be looking at another form of intervention and a bit of extra support for them.
“It depends on the child as to what we do, but it’s really about trying to get them into a routine as soon as possible, normalising it for them. But also saying we’re here if you need us.
“Sometimes all of this can be born from something else. There’s an underlying problem. That’s sometimes the case if there are family problems, parental separation or something that’s being going on since primary school.”
Rachel adds: “As a school counsellor it can be about coming up with practical strategies and advice,
“I help them to understand why it’s that they’re anxious, facilities these strategies to help, help them think about self-care and ways of looking after themselves.
“But it’s also about giving them a space to figure it out.
“At this age they don’t have the language or emotional literacy to explain the feeling ‘I don’t want to be here’, ‘I feel sick’,” she added.
“If they’re displaying physical symptoms it may be that they can’t connect these physical symptoms with what’s going on emotionally. We need look underneath these physical symptoms and give them the tools to do that too.”
Sometimes it’s also about helping the parents of the anxious youngsters, adds Rachel.
Parents who are too clingy sometimes need a bit of advice, as well as the child.
Period of change and growth
For Rachel, and school counsellors across the country, seeing young people develop through this turbulent period and come out on the other side of it, is one of the joys of her job.
“It’s so rewarding. To see them start school and then go all the way through to GCSEs and Year 11. It’s such a period of change and growth.
"It’s good to be able to support them through that, see them develop to the point where they don’t need to come back to counselling or where they know to come back if they need to.
"It’s so rewarding to know that they know have the emotional intelligence to ask why they feel as they do and to understand what to do and how to cope with it.”
To find a BACP counsellor or psychotherapist who specialises in children and young people, visit our Therapist directory.
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Children and young people
Read our members' experiences and your stories of how counselling can help children and young people.