As one of those rare kids who loved school (and still does), heading back to school was something that I actually looked forward to. However, for many children school is a drag at best, and at worst a major source of anxiety. Even for those of us who are school lovers, a new school year brings many anxiety provoking unknowns—Will I like my new teacher? Will I make friends in my class? Will the work be harder than last year and am I up for it?
Here are some tips for addressing your child’s concerns and supporting him or her through this transition:
Be an active listener. Set aside some time to discuss the transition with your child and listen for cues that your child might be feeling uncomfortable. You can start by asking your child about their hopes and concerns about the coming school year. Take time to hear your child’s concern before rushing in with advice. Sometimes simply voicing concerns is enough to help them feel better.
Be on the lookout for other signs of anxiety. Children do not always express their worries verbally. Physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches (without a known physical cause), difficulty falling and staying asleep, and clinginess and/or separation anxiety are all common signs of anxiety.
Be informed. Knowledge is power. While it is impossible to know all the details in advance, try and share any basic information you have about his or her class with your child—the teacher, classmates, and changes in the routine that he or she can anticipate. Try to keep this information as neutral as possible. Off-handed comments like “I hear the 4th grade is really tough” can fuel anxiety.
Focus on the positive. While it’s important to hear out your child’s concerns, if he or she is sounding like a broken record of worries, it may also be helpful to point out some of the positives. For instance, if your child is worried about keeping up with the school work, you can remind them of how nice it will be to spend time with the friends they haven’t seen over the summer.
Enlist your child in the preparations. Back to school rituals can ease the transition process. Many kids enjoy shopping for school clothes and school supplies. Others may enjoy planning a special breakfast for the first day of school or dinner for the night before. Rituals like these can help children feel more in control.
Recalibrate bedtimes. For many of us the summer schedule of vacations and long lazy days means going to bed later and sleeping in. Abrupt changes in schedule can lead to sleep deprivation and the inevitable crankiness as many children (and adults) find it difficult to quickly reset their biological clocks to the earlier wake-up times. You can facilitate a smoother transition by gradually adjusting your child’s sleep schedule. Starting at least a week before school starts, wake your child up a bit earlier each day until you are an hour or less from their school day wake-up time.
Leave extra time until you settle into the new routine. Nothing is more stressful than rushing to get out the door in the morning. Add this to the stress and tension of starting school and you have a recipe for disaster. Scheduling in some extra time for the first week or so will help everyone to settle back smoothly into a comfortable routine.
Try to be patient. Understand that transitions are difficult for everyone. It may take a few weeks for everyone to settle back into the groove but, before you know it, things will smooth back out and it will feel like business as usual.