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"I don't want to go to school!" It's an age-old complaint from children. But a growing body of research suggests that this protest can signal a deeper problem: school anxiety. Recent studies show that anxiety disorders are one of the most common psychiatric conditions among kids, with as many as 10% suffering from them and requiring medical treatment. No studies have been conducted on how common school anxiety is, but some experts believe it's on the rise among younger kids, including preschoolers.
"Our society is expecting more and more from our kids at younger ages," says Sucheta Connolly, M.D., a child psychiatrist and director of the Pediatric Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Illinois in Chicago, which treats children as young as 2. "And not all of them can handle it." But how do you know whether your child's protests are a ploy to avoid an uncomfortable situation or a genuine cry for help? In an interview with Child, Dr. Connolly explained how to tell the difference and outlined what parents can do to ease every child's entry into school.
Q: Why do you think school anxiety is becoming more common?
A: To be sure, the war and September 11 made some children temporarily anxious about leaving their family. But there have also been cultural changes. In past generations, kids weren't expected to separate from their parents all day until they were in first grade. Now many toddlers are taking that step in daycare, but some aren't ready for it. I know this is difficult for parents because often they both must work to meet the needs of their family.
Also, though, schools expect more of children. In some school districts, a child's ability to move from one grade to the next is tied to a lengthy, timed test. Today, many fourth-graders are given two hours of homework a night, and without direct input on how to pace themselves and study, some kids struggle. Before long, they're complaining they're sick and saying they don't want to go to school.