I overheard the following conversations recently:

Two teens are talking in an ice cream shop:

Teen1: I got just the class schedule I wanted for next year but now I hear they are making changes, and I worry that I am going to have my classes mixed up. I won’t be with my friends if they do that.

Teen 2: I haven’t gotten my schedule yet – but I heard that my friends are not in my classes because there were too many people asking for the same teachers. I reallllly want to have Ms. S for my foreign language. Now I hear they are hiring another teacher because of the overload.

Two young adults are talking at a coffee shop:

Young Adult 1: I am graduating this year and have to prepare my graduation recital. I tried to work on it over the summer but I didn’t get nearly enough done. How will I ever get all the work ready this year?

Young Adult 2: I’m not ready to go back – I’m not even sure I am convinced of my major that I have chosen. I’m thinking of taking a semester off.

Two Professors are talking after a staff meeting:

Professor 1: I’m just not ready! And I did not get nearly enough research done over the summer. Now I have to make my syllabi for two new courses in the coming week. I wish I had begun that sooner.

Professor 2: I am worried about the conference presentation that is coming up so soon after the semester begins – I know some people will be there who could be influential in my career – I wonder if my paper that I wrote will be good enough.

All of these people have one thing in common despite their ages, experiences, and levels of their careers. I call it Back To School Anxiety. After a summer of relative freedom that may have included camp, vacations, sleeping in, getting together with friends, not having rigid schedules and crunching deadlines they all face a similar situation and have similar feelings. Anxiety! They are returning to a familiar routine that they have known from past years, but the new is unknown anew in many ways as the academic year unfolds. They are no longer masters of their own time and activities but now assume the responsibilities and demands of being students, teachers, and beholden to schedules, early alarm clocks, grades, and review committees.

For many people, this is a welcome change from the idle and idyllic hours of summer. For others Back to School Anxiety brings up the psychological issues of performing well in class, getting high grades, moving closer to graduation, perhaps moving away from friends and family, making important decisions, and time management between academic and homework demands and leisure. It feels as though security of home and fun comes to an abrupt STOP. What it means to “produce” good assignments, or create lesson plans and lectures, and grade papers and tests, or write and make presentations to achieve promotion brings up many anxieties not specifically caused by returning to school but to reacting to what school represents for each individual.

Back to School Anxiety is a form of performance anxiety. It brings up present and future “what ifs” as well as past memories and reflections. For young children entering kindergarten (or even nursery school) it can ignite separation issues (both for parents and children). For elementary, middle and high school students there is the strong element of belonging and being included by others in peer groups. It may activate a fear of being bullied. For university students, there is the added pressure of solidifying a professional identity, career choice and perhaps becoming involved in a serious relationship. For teachers, the issues outlined for those of younger ages may surface again such as they wish to belong through promotions and publications. The challenges for all ages can be heavy with self-doubt that arises from inside the mind and is exacerbated by the external demands and requirements where students and teachers fear judgment and a need to prove (and be approved for) their academic and social skills.

Going back to school is much more than a time of year for buying supplies, new clothes, notebooks, texts, and seeing friends again. What can be helpful for all returnees is to find ways to talk about anxiety with parents and teachers (who also may need trusted colleagues or friends who discuss their concerns as well). It is useful to realize that both students and teachers are anxious – though neither wants the other to know since many believe anxiety is a “flaw”. That is a myth that needs to be dispelled.

Anxiety about a change in routine and life style is normal – change often evokes anxiety– and needs to be normalized for those who feel that no one else is struggling. In many ways “back to school anxiety” is experienced as similar as going from back stage to center stage – where performers realize that spotlight shines on them. The audience – now experienced (or perceived) as teachers and peers (or parents) is waiting to judge a performance. Of course, should anxiety symptoms persist and interfere, it would be wise to seek some professional help. Hopefully, students, teachers – and parents – will adjust to their new routine, new friends, find satisfaction in moving ahead, and come to look forward to the rewards that come with the adventure (vs, anxiety) of going back at school. Maybe going back to school can even be enjoyable!! Good luck for a wonderful year ahead.

I would enjoy hearing about your experiences going back to school.