As school year approaches, students encounter stressful transitions

by Richard S. Winer, M.D. | Medication, Parents, Students

As August comes around, our thoughts tend to turn away from summer fun and drift more toward the start of yet another school year. I certainly remember the days when the school year basically went from Labor Day to Memorial Day and that schedule still exists in certain parts of the country. However, more and more schools are beginning earlier and earlier in August. This gives students a better chance to complete a semester before the winter break and not have to return for a short time period before taking finals. Also, with all of the days the kids have off for everything from teacher workdays to holidays to mid-winter breaks, it’s no wonder why classes begin earlier to factor in those off days. These “Back to School” days can be very trying for students, parents, and even teachers.

In recent days, I have had several young people come into the office and discuss the anxieties they are experiencing in advance of the school year. Anticipatory anxiety all too often ends up being far worse than the anxiety of the event itself and this is commonly true with the start of school. This is particularly true when someone is starting at a new school. I find that the transition from elementary to middle school may well be the most anxiety-provoking of all because students change classes more, deal with more teachers during a day, and experience all of the social trials and tribulations that come in the sixth through eighth grades. This is not to say that the start of kindergarten or high school is exactly a walk in the park. They are all challenging experiences for everyone concerned.

Let’s not forget those who are starting college this time of the year. The idea of being away from home sounds really appealing to so many, but the classic issues of independence versus dependence regularly come into play. It’s common for college freshmen to struggle academically, become anxious or depressed while gaining weight, and long for the days when they were home and everything seemed so simple. Many patients are first diagnosed during their freshman year with ADHD. These bright people struggle with time management once outside the more structured high school class day. They can’t understand why they are having  such a tough time academically. Mind you, they are often taking core curriculum classes they have to take rather than want to take and those classes are often taught by the least experienced lecturers on the campus. The students frequently sit in auditorium-style classrooms that  hold hundreds of students – often in the back where all the distractions are in front of them. Before you know it, their thoughts are more at the beach than the classroom.

The college student not previously diagnosed or treated with ADHD usually does not seek treatment until he or she is more into the struggles of the semester. Parents of younger students often wonder if they should have their child evaluated and/or treated before or after the start of the school year. You might say this is a question of “Track or Treat.” Some parents want to track their child’s progress or lack thereof for a while at school before making the call to be seen. Others prefer to go ahead and treat before the classes begin to try to head off the problems at the pass before the child falls way behind. In my opinion, if a parent suspects a child might have ADHD, why not go ahead and check things out even while there is still time left in the summer?  You might give your child a good head start by treating and tracking long before it’s time for “Trick or Treat.”

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