From Beach To Books – Making A Smooth Transition Back To School
Growing up, the first day of school was always a big deal in my house. I remember the thrill of stocking up on brand new school supplies and hitting the department stores for new Fall clothes and shoes. Each year on the morning of the first day, my father took pictures. I always wore a compulsory smile.
Yet, with all the anticipation and preparation for the new school year came substantial feelings of nervousness. Fear of the unknown. Worry about new teachers, new routines, and high expectations. Concern about fitting in and making friends. Anxiety over pleasing my parents and teachers.
The transition back to school can be exciting, but it can also be scary, whether you’re a toddler or a teenager. As parents, just being aware of this can be helpful in supporting a child.
For younger kids, school anxiety is often demonstrated through clinginess and crying. This is normal. I remember when Marissa was in preschool and she cried or whined every morning when I dropped her off. Within minutes of leaving the classroom, I would sneak a peek through the window to find her calmly playing with toys or engaged in an activity.
In my experience, quick and drama-free goodbyes are best. Your child needs you to be calm and show confidence in the teacher to take good care of him. If you’re at all apprehensive yourself, your child will pick up on it.
Older kids might withdraw or conversely, act out more. They might complain of stomach aches or headaches or flat-out refuse to go to school. Stay calm. There’s a reason they’re acting this way other than to piss you off or because they’re lazy. At the adolescent day treatment program I mentioned in this post, many of the teens refused to attend school. There were a variety of reasons for this…we just needed to get to the root of the problem and then figure out ways to handle it.
Here are some recommendations for getting through the start of school:
1. Don’t try to control every aspect of your child’s school experience. It can be hard to see your child cry or have difficulties, but anxiety at the beginning of school is normal. Once kids get through the transition (which could take days or weeks), it will likely lessen.
Do acknowledge his experience and feelings. Your child may not be able to tell you why he’s anxious, so you can say things like, “It can be hard getting to know a new teacher” or “Making friends can be tough,” and gauge his reaction to see if you’re on target. Without trying to change or “fix” his feelings, empathize and let him know they are normal and ok.
2. Try not to ask the overly simplistic question, “How was school today?” or talk about all the fun things to do at school.
Instead, ask your child to tell you something specific about his day. For example, “What did you learn in science class?” or “Who sat at your lunch table today?” Let him tell you about the parts of school that he enjoys and be open to hearing about the things he doesn't. Resist making assumptions or saying things like, “Don't be silly” or “that's not going to happen,” which don't make your child feel heard or understood.
3. Try to figure out what's really going on. Kids want to do well in school, but sometimes the pressure to excel can be overwhelming.
Marissa was blessed with a teacher last year who recognized this, and could sense that Marissa was crumbling under the stress of learning a new language and keeping up with her peers.
At home, Marissa and I would get into nightly battles over homework until her teacher finally told me, “If I give an assignment to read 15 lines — let her pick 3. Then stop.” It was more important to this teacher that Marissa feel a sense of accomplishment and love of learning than to feel deflated and resentful while struggling to complete her work. Once we adjusted our expectations to be more realistic, Marissa started feeling better about herself and school.
Other kids might have undetected learning difficulties. Collaborate with teachers to figure out how to best help your child if you have any specific, recurring problems.
4. Think beyond academics.
The older children get, the more central their social lives and peer relationships become. Making friends and fitting-in are top priority. Be sensitive to this as an inevitable school stressor, and do your best to bear witness to their drama without passing judgment or getting involved yourself.
Some other ideas for easing the transition from summer to school:
- Visit the school and classroom with your child before school starts. If possible, meet the teacher, too.
- Find out the names of other children in the class and set up some play dates.
- For younger kids, play “school.” Let your child be in a position of power and pretend to be the teacher. Use puppets or dolls to act out the school day. Read books to your child about school.
- For older kids, ask questions and problem-solve ahead of time. Engage them in a conversation about their hopes for the new school year, what their worries are, and ideas for addressing each one.
Now, it's your turn. Do you remember having the jitters before a new school year? What helped you get settled? What have you done to help your kids do the same? I'd love to hear from the teachers out there. What do you suggest parents do to help their kids during this time? Please leave a comment below.