Your child has her new school clothes laid out. Lunch supplies are stocked. You’ve reclaimed a decent bedtime.
Now, if only you could quell her biggest source of back-to-school anxiety: What if I don’t like my new teacher? Worse, what if she doesn’t like me?
It’s not an irrational fear: A teacher is the adult who, after parents, will have the most influence – and control – over a child. They are often thoughtful mentors a child recalls fondly well into adulthood, but they can also be confrontational grumps who leave emotional scars.
There’s a reason Roald Dahl’s tale of a scary headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, in his book Matilda, is a classic, after all.
“[With]having a new teacher, someone who is very important in a child’s life, there can be a lot of natural worries about that: Are they going to be nice? Are they going to be understanding? Demanding? Intimidating?” says Stephen Whiteside, a child psychologist specializing in anxiety at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
According to an Angus Reid survey conducted in late August, 42 per cent of Canadian parents have noticed their kids' anxiety levels increasing during the final days before school starts. The Mayo Clinic commissioned the survey.
While parents mentioned homework and new schedules as factors, worries about the new teacher topped the list. Of parents who said their kids’ anxiety levels were increasing, 54 per cent cited having a new teacher as the cause.
This new teacher anxiety is more prominent in the lower grades, Dr. Whiteside adds. “The more novel the situation is, the more likely they are to have anxiety,” he says, suggesting that a new school or the transition from kindergarten to Grade 1 can be especially tough.
Toronto mother Jen Maier says while her eight-year-old daughter is excited about going back to school, she is anxious about having a new teacher for, perhaps, a more concrete reason.
Ms. Maier describes her daughter’s relationship with last year’s teacher as “a bad fit,” personality-wise, which resulted in disciplinary stand-offs.
“She’s been asking, ‘Mommy, I wonder if my teacher will like me more this year?’ ” says Ms. Maier.
The founder of parenting website Urbanmoms.ca says she didn’t realize the impact the relationship was having on her daughter until late in the school year. She plans on being more proactive at the first sign of trouble.
Experts say some kids will need the added boost only a parent can give.
As a former teacher herself, Toronto mom Ali York-Aidelman has been warding off first-day jitters all summer with her son, who is attending Grade 1 this fall. She’s been explaining how the day will be different from kindergarten: It’s longer, there’s recess and he can either go home for lunch or eat in the cafeteria.
But she agrees that these are all peripheral to the power of the new teacher. “That’s where the anxiety comes from,” she says.
If it doesn’t go well, she says she’ll first explore whether a child’s complaints are due to the new teacher simply having a different style than last year’s – even if it seems negative.
So if her son comes home wondering why, say, the teacher wants the classroom more quiet than the noisy ones he’s used to, she’ll explain that teachers are not all the same and they have different strengths and weaknesses.
“I’ll say, ‘You learned so much from last year’s teachers. Now you might learn in a different way.’ ”
Teachers certainly know kids are nervous about meeting them and spend much of their pre-school prep on strategies to diffuse the fear.
Megan Whittington and her colleague Wing-Yee Hui, who teach a split Grade 1/2 class at Toronto’s Forest Hill Public School, have carefully planned their welcome on Tuesday. “All eyes are on you,” says Ms. Whittington. “They’re looking at you with hope and perhaps a bit of jitters.”
Ms. Hui is creating a “teacher wall” to introduce herself via images and photos. Ms. Whittington brings a small suitcase filled with pictures of her family, along with a plush toy dog that looks like her own pet. They also make sure the children see their own names on the wall or at their desk to let them know their teachers want to get to know them.
“It’s no longer, ‘Get out your pencils right now,’ ” says Ms. Whittington, who has been teaching for more than a decade. Instead, the key is to be “real, open and friendly.” She’ll also admit to the kids that she, too, has first-day jitters and they’ll get through it together.
One new-teacher tactic that has already impressed Toronto mother Sandy Pedrogao is the arrival of a postcard personally addressed to her son.
That gave her son, who will attend Grade 1 at Toronto’s Ossington Old Orchard Public School, a decided boost, although Ms. Pedrogao hadn’t detected any major anxiety.
“He was really excited to get it, to know it was from his teacher,” says Ms. Pedrogao, the editor of Oh Baby! Magazine.
And Ms. Maier is optimistic her daughter’s new teacher will be trying to connect with her. “I do believe every teacher wants every child to have a positive experience in their classroom,” says Ms. Maier.
Just in case, she and her husband are considering a family round table discussion in the first week of school in which everyone can share the good parts and the bad parts of their day – including any new-teacher angst.
“I want her to go to school knowing that even if she is naughty, there is someone on her side.”