The stress of starting school

My five-year-old daughter started school this year and after a wonderful start, has become increasingly anxious about a number of issues.

My five-year-old daughter started school this year and after a wonderful start, has become increasingly anxious about a number of issues. She becomes anxious if she doesn’t get things exactly right in class, she is constantly worried about the allergies suffered by other children (and how she might accidentally make them sick) and has been washing her hands and face a little obsessively. Her teacher says she over-reacts, repeats herself, can be withdrawn and finds it hard to let things go. What are some simple coping mechanisms/activities that I can implement at home (and ask the teacher to implement at school) that will help her to stay relaxed, let little things go and stop these issues from becoming more serious problems?

It is quite common for young children to experience some stress when they start school. Although your daughter seemed to be quite happy initially, she is being introduced to a world of many new challenges, some positive and some quite scary (to a small child anyway).

The first thing you could try is to have a talk with your daughter about the physical nature of her anxiety. What does it feel like for her, and where in her body does she feel something when she is worried? Get her to name her physical sensations and possibly make it a bit funny, for example, “the worry monster in your tummy”. At the age of five, your daughter may not be able to make sense of her worrying thought patterns so I recommend starting with introducing when worrying is healthy and when it is not healthy (“good” worry versus “not good” worry). For example, you could explain that it is “good” to feel scared when there is an imminent threat of danger such as seeing a big angry dog running towards you, but “not so good” to feel scared and anxious about something like making a small mistake.

Once you know how anxiety feels for your daughter, you can give her some basic strategies such as breathing deeply through her nose to physically calm her down (in for 3 seconds, out for 3 seconds). To teach regulated breathing to a child, you could blow bubbles together and notice what happens when you breathe in an even, calm way, compared to the way you may breathe when anxious or scared (short and sharp).

You have already noticed how your daughter behaves when she is anxious so now you can think about what your daughter can do “instead of” those anxiety-reinforcing behaviours. When you notice your daughter engaging in a behaviour that looks like a positive coping strategy, such as washing her hands only at the “usual” times, praise her and be over the top to start with. Also verbally reward and encourage her for socialising with children.

Some of these strategies can also be implemented in a school setting. List the positive behaviours you would like to see more of and talk to the teacher about rewarding her intermittently for these behaviours. Praising her in front of other children is also a good idea, especially when she is playing with them, rather than withdrawing. Could blowing bubbles in class be a bit of stress relief for everyone? It is also important that your daughter’s “anxious” behaviours are not punished at home or at school.

External praise and rewards is a good starting point and then encouraging self-management strategies such as breathing and distraction with other activities (that she can think of) when she is anxious, and is helpful for the long term. In the early stages of teaching anxiety management, you could introduce a symbolic toy or comfort item that has the “power” to make her feel less worry. This could be something small that she can carry around with her or leave at her desk at school such as a stress ball, worry doll, special trinket. Or perhaps a special word she can say to herself during times of anxiety that have the “power” to chase the worries away. This can be used at times when she doesn’t have a physical comfort item.

See how you go with these simple strategies and if you feel you and your daughter need further advice, don’t hesitate to seek counselling support. Some useful websites are:,, and

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Assistant Director and a registered psychologist.

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