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School Mental Health Guide

These actionable tips can help your child have a great and productive school year.

This content is researched and written based on extensive testing by an external reviews team and does not reflect the views or opinions of Everyday Health’s editorial team. Everyday Health may earn a commission from purchases of products featured in this article.

Key Takeaways

  • Millions of school-aged kids in the United States have anxiety, depression, or both
  • Mental health is a predictor of success later in life
  • Counselors and therapists can help your child face complex emotions

The transition from summer back to school can cause a wave of positive and negative feelings for students. For example, they may be excited about seeing their friends but also worry about their grades or being bullied, among other stressors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health among students overall continues to worsen. In this guide, we’ll explain why mental health matters and provide actionable strategies to help kids and caregivers have a successful school year.

Why Mental Health Matters

Mental health is a predictor of success in school and later in life, according to an article published in the journal Child Psychiatry & Human Development. The results showed that mental health had a strong influence on academic performance. The article continued to say that children with mental health problems are more likely to have unfavorable educational outcomes like poor grades, delays in reading, repeating years, and dropping out of school.

Mental Health Challenges Students Face and Their Symptoms

Back-to-school jitters are expected, but the CDC warns that extreme feelings of fear and sadness may be a diagnosable condition. If you are concerned about your child’s anxiety, social anxiety, or depression, seek help from a school counselor or mental health professional in your community to get an accurate diagnosis.

Anxiety

According to the CDC, school-aged kids who do not outgrow fear that interferes with social interactions and school work may be diagnosed with anxiety. Look for symptoms like:

  • Shallow, fast breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Pounding heart
  • Shakiness
  • Sweating

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety can manifest in kids who are scared of new situations, according to an article published in The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences. They may have severe shyness or avoid their peers. In extreme cases, they may stop talking altogether, which is called selective mutism. Other symptoms of social anxiety include headaches, nausea, and stomachaches.

Depression

Depression is more than occasional sadness, according to the CDC. When kids feel persistently helpless or hopeless, that may be depression. Other symptoms include the following:

  • Disinterest in doing fun things or not enjoying them
  • Irritability
  • Low energy and feeling sluggish
  • High energy and feeling restless
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Not being able to maintain attention during school
  • Sadness
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Self-injury
  • Sleeping too much or too little

Fear of School

According to Stanford Medicine, extreme fear of school, called scolionophobia, can lead some children to skip school. A recent move, change of schools, death of a family member, or divorce may stress some children. Others may have a perceived fear of school based on safety issues.

Some kids fear physical harm on the bus to and from school or an attack during the school day. Approximately 5 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported being afraid of danger at school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Kids may also fear emotional harm, like perceived meanness from their teacher, bullying, and social anxiety about interacting with peers.

Back-to-School Mental Health Issues in the Household

Struggling with academics can cause tension in your household. Excessive academic expectations from parents and teachers can increase the risk of child-parent conflict and potentially increase a student’s problematic behavior, as noted in an article published in September 2022 in Frontiers of Psychology.

Finding the right approach to help your child succeed in and out of the classroom is a balancing act. Regular check-ins with your child are beneficial to see how they’re doing academically, socially, and emotionally.

Ketan Parmar, MD, MBBS, a psychiatrist and mental health expert at ClinicSpots in Mumbai, India, explains how to have those conversations with your child. “It is important to help your child cope with their emotions in healthy ways. You can do this by listening to their feelings and validating them, encouraging them to express their emotions through words, art, music, or other creative outlets,” Dr. Parmar says.

Healthy Habits That Support Mental Wellness

In addition to having regular check-ins with your child, practicing some healthy habits can help ease your family into a back-to-school routine. And sticking with them can better your well-being year-round.

Nutrition

Eating a well-balanced diet and staying hydrated is important for setting up your student for success.

The 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlines healthy food choices to ensure students have a well-rounded diet, like:

  • Colorful whole fruits and vegetables
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk and plenty of water
  • A variety of seeds, nuts, and beans
  • Whole-grain bread

Caffeine may give students a temporary energy boost but should be used with caution, if at all. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, pediatricians recommend children younger than 12 avoid caffeine altogether. For kids ages 12 to 18, pediatricians recommend limiting caffeine intake to a maximum of 100 milligrams (mg) daily.

Common drinks may pack more caffeine than you think. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) shares the average number of milligrams in common drinks:

  • An 8-ounce cup of coffee has 95 to 200 mg.
  • A 12-ounce can of cola has 35 to 45 mg.
  • An 8-ounce energy drink has 70 to 100 mg (some as high as 200 mg).
  • An 8-ounce cup of tea has 14 to 60 mg.

Similarly, sugar can increase energy levels but should be used sparingly. A diet high in sugar has been linked to anxiety and depression, according to an article published in August 2019 in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. The researchers made this connection after reviewing more than 300 studies investigating the interaction between sugar consumption, stress, and emotions.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends checking nutrition labels on drinks to see how much sugar they contain. If the daily value is 20 percent, that drink is a high source of added sugars and should be consumed only occasionally. If it says 5 percent or less, it is a low source of added sugars.

Movement

Kids who move during the day, through recess or team sports, are set up for success in the classroom. In a review published in June 2023 in Children, 60 percent of school-aged child participants demonstrated significant benefits of physical activity on academic performance, and 48 percent reported an improvement in cognitive performance.

Another article published in July 2023 in Frontiers in Physiology found that physical activity benefitted children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The article also stated that children who engaged in mentally engaging exercise, such as interactive games, had a better time concentrating in the classroom than if they had done aerobic exercise.

The CDC recommends differing activity levels for each age group, from moderate movement throughout the day to intense activity. AGE GROUP

RECOMMENDED PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

AGE GROUP

RECOMMENDED PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

3–5

Movement through active play

6–17

60 minutes per day of activities like running, climbing, or jumping rope

18 and older

150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity like brisk walking and two days of strength training per week

Sleep

Good quality sleep is important for sustaining your mental health. Inadequate sleep can negatively affect your mood, according to an article published in February 2023 in the Journal of Sleep Research. A consistent sleep schedule helps students get through their busy day. The same article found that students who go to sleep and wake at the same time every day have fewer depressive symptoms than students who do not have a sleep schedule.

“Science shows that the less sleep we get, the more cranky, emotional, and reactive we become,” says mental health therapist Krissy White, a counselor in private practice in Katy, Texas. She recommends creating a relaxing and consistent sleep routine.

“Set a morning alarm when you start to get ready for bed. After brushing your teeth and doing your skin routine, do yoga, read a good book, or meditate before bed. It will help you destress, calm your mind, and feel relaxed before drifting off to sleep,” White adds.

Scheduling

Kids thrive when they know what their expectations are throughout the day. Niloufar Esmaeilpour, founder of Lotus Therapy in British Columbia, Canada, says, “Having a consistent routine can help you feel more in control and less stressed.”

Esmaeilpour recommends that students use planners or apps to keep everything in order. Helping your child map out study time, assignments, and other activities throughout the day, week, and month can make it easier for them to track their responsibilities.

Other professionals agree. “Establishing a consistent routine is one effective strategy to support children’s mental health as the new school year begins. Routines provide children a sense of security and predictability, thus reducing stress and anxiety,” says Steve Carleton, LCSW, a therapist and leadership coach at Gallus Detox in Denver.

In addition to fixed times for waking up, enjoying meals, completing schoolwork, and getting ready for bedtime, Carleton recommends adding fun and relaxation to the daily schedule — ensuring a balance between work and play. Routines shouldn’t feel restrictive but rather provide a comforting framework for the day, reassuring children so that they know what to expect.

Self-Care

“Taking time for self-care will help everyone stay physically and mentally healthy during this potentially stressful time,” says Praveen Guntipalli, MD, a board-certified internal medicine and obesity medicine specialist and owner of Sanjiva Medical Spa in Dallas.

Self-care can look like:

  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Eating healthy foods
  • Managing stress through exercises such as yoga
  • Taking regular breaks throughout the day

Make a Transition Plan

Near the start of the school year, review the new routines that will take place with your family. Your child may want to be involved in the planning and preparation for the year. Counseling psychologist Raffaello Antonino, PhD, at Therapy Central LLP in London, has some transition recommendations:

  • Set an earlier bedtime.
  • Read educational materials.
  • Do light schoolwork to reset their academic mindset.

Kids are not a monolithic group, and everyone has their own way of adjusting to the new school year. “School-aged children who are sensitive or easily worried, or those who have developmental delays, may need extra time to adjust,” explains Karen Remley, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, on a podcast episode from July 2021 called “Transitioning Back to School or Early Child Education.”

Finding the right balance between schoolwork and life can take some work, but having tools in place can set your child up for a wonderful year. Plan ahead and be flexible when plans don’t work as intended. Find your support through friends and family who you can depend on.

Build a Support System

It’s important for your child to communicate their feelings and needs, according to Ian Jackson, a licensed professional counselor at Recovery Unplugged in Brentwood, Tennessee. If your child is struggling, he recommends telling them:

  • Talk to teachers. If you’re struggling academically, let your teachers know. They can provide support or direct you to resources that can help.
  • Reach out to friends and family. Sharing your feelings with others can provide emotional relief, and they can offer advice or support.

Cultivate Positive Relationships

If your child is anxious about meeting friends, Parmar says you can encourage them to socialize by asking their classmates and teachers about themselves. Parmar also suggests that parents can do some of the following:

  • Arrange outings with their peers.
  • Enroll them in clubs or teams that match their interests and talents.
  • Teach them social skills such as greeting others, introducing themselves, asking questions, giving compliments, sharing, taking turns, and resolving conflicts.
  • Model positive and respectful interactions with others.

Encourage healthy boundaries with friends or potential romantic partners for older teens so they feel empowered to see or avoid people in and out of school. Open up the discussion about peer pressure and bullying before it might happen to make sure that they feel comfortable coming to you if they’re treated in a way that makes them uneasy.

Plan Ahead for Academic Stress

If time management is challenging for your child, try the “Pomodoro technique” — coined by Francesco Cirillo, a professional consultant from Italy — to tackle homework assignments. It started when he was a college student in the 1980s. He’d use a kitchen timer to do 25-minute chunks of focused work, and when the timer buzzed, he took a break. You can play around with the amount of time and see what works best for your family.

If your child is stressed by how long it takes to complete a task or the amount of homework overall, seek help from the school’s counselor and your child’s teachers. They may have some recommendations.

Practice Adult-Child Communication

Kids may not pick up on what you say as much as what you do, so it’s important to model positive behavior you want your child to adopt, according to an article published in the journal Social Development. Allow children to observe you interact with others, especially during conflict resolution, with patience and grace.

Some kids may not be receptive to answering yes or no questions about their school day. They may need to unwind after coming home. After they’re settled or during dinner, ask open-ended questions like, “What made you laugh today?” or “How did you feel today?”

If the child notices that someone in their class acts differently than most other students, be sure to model kindness and use neutral, person-first language to explain the child’s condition.

SAY THIS:

He’s autistic.

He has autism.

She is hyper.

She has ADHD.

She freaked out in class.

She struggled with her emotions.

Teach Resilience

Resilience is the process of successfully adapting to challenging life experiences through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility, according to the American Psychological Association.

Jackson recommends mindfulness practices to help students become more resilient, adding that techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can help manage stress. Yoga also shows significant benefits for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to an article published in March 2020 in the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics.

Marissa Moore, a licensed professional counselor at Mentalyc in Springfield, Missouri, suggests that kids journal to work out their complicated feelings and celebrate successes. Moore encourages her patients to write about their challenges, ‘aha!’ moments, and personal growth, adding, “Reflecting on your experiences can provide valuable insights.”

When the Going Gets Tough

Parmar says that if you notice changes in your child’s behavior, eating, or sleep, you should talk to them about what is bothering them. Let them know that you’re noticing changes and want to find help for them. Try to be direct but gentle in your tone of voice.

“Try to be supportive, empathetic, and nonjudgmental. You can also consult your child’s teacher, school counselor, or pediatrician for further guidance,” says Parmar.

If your child needs support and might benefit from therapy, your school counselor may suggest people you can see locally.

Most public schools (96 percent) in the United States offered mental health services during the 2021 to 2022 school year, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). But the report noted that schools had some limiting factors:

  • Insufficient number of mental health professionals to manage their school’s caseload
  • Inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals
  • Inadequate funding

If in-person therapy isn’t what you’re looking for or isn’t available, there are a variety of reputable online therapy platforms worth considering. Our reviews team evaluated online therapy platforms specifically for teens. Refer to it to see whether TalkSpace, BetterHelp, or one of the other platforms would be a good fit for your adolescent.

Most online therapy platforms require you to pay out of pocket, although some accept insurance. When interviewing potential therapists, ask if they accept payment on a sliding scale. You may be able to use your health savings account (HSA) if you have one. Costs may vary by provider.

The Bottom Line

Going back to school can be an exciting and fraught time for students and parents. Getting ahead of emotional stressors and frequently checking in can help your child have a successful school year and support their mental health. Practicing healthy habits — like eating well, moving often, and getting good sleep — along with your child can help the whole household start the year right.

If at any time you feel like your child could use more support, reach out to their teacher, school counselor, or health care professional.

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