During your children’s school career, there will be many new beginnings they’ll have to face. From those first anxious moments when they wave goodbye to you from the preschool door to when they enter the hallways of a new middle or high school as awkward teenagers, change and resiliency will be key factors in how they handle the stress of any new chapter.
As parents we wish we could just wiggle our noses as the character Samantha did on the 1960s TV show Bewitched and make these transitions smoother for our kids. Of course we can’t, but we can help them become increasingly independent, which can empower them to deal with change.
Kenneth Shore, a school psychologist for more than 25 years and a lecturer at Rutgers University in New Jersey, wants parents to feel reassured that in time, most children will adjust to any new situation.
At the same time, Shore, who is the author of six books including The ABCs of Bullying Prevention and The Parents’ Public School Handbook: How To Make the Most of Your Child's Education, From Kindergarten Through Middle School, says parents’ fears about change are real. “Their concern is well-placed. Starting a new school year or changing schools can be just as stressful for children as a change in jobs would be for their parents,” he says. “For many children, their school is the center of not only their educational life but of their social and recreational life, as well. While beginning a new school year or school holds the promise of something new and different, children often are more worried than excited. Their jitters are natural and should be expected.”
For parents of preschool- and kindergarten-age children, those jitters can be especially acute for both the children and the parents. For many, it’s the first time they are truly separating from each other. Shannon Dow, head teacher and education coordinator at the Children’s Montessori Center in Danvers, Mass., and the mother of two children, says educators really understand that this can be an emotionally charged time for kids and moms and dads.
“Most new children coming to our school are separating from their parent for the first time,” Dow says. “Because of this, we spend a lot of time and energy educating the parents on the process of separation.
“Many parents,” she continues, “assume their child will be fine and will start school without any issues; however, this is not always the case. Each year is a new year and the children return to school at different stages in their development.” In fact, Dow says, she and her fellow educators have found that “all children go through separation anxiety and display their feelings in many different ways.”
Shore says parents today tend to hover and be more protective than parents in past generations, and they often want to “fix” any anxiety or stress their kids may be facing. But this doesn’t do children any good in the long run.
“We don’t always give kids a chance to work through the anxiety they are experiencing,” Shore says. “The great majority will, in time, adjust to all sorts of changes. It is the rare case that causes any kind of trauma.”
This is comforting for parents as a new school year looms and excitement levels are high—as are worries about what the new academic year holds. To that end, and because children look to their parents for reassurance in new situations, Dow suggests that parents try to keep their own anxieties hidden. She says parents should show a happy, upbeat attitude toward the new school year because when the parents’ demeanor reflects a sense of trust in the teachers, the school, and the new environment, research shows that children are typically more successful.
Here are 10 ways you can help your child have a smooth return to school and start the new school year on a positive note.
1. Chat with your child. Keeping an open line of communication is important. Encourage your child to talk about any feelings he is experiencing. Remember that change is stressful not only for you but for your child, as well. He may need to vent those feelings; be patient during this time. Let him know that these feelings are normal. “Be patient—adjustment time for every kid is different,” says Shore, adding that “it will take three to four weeks for most kids to start to feel comfortable.”
2. Create a sense of community. Feeling a part of things is important for children at every age. You can help by providing chances for your child to make new friends. “Your children will feel more comfortable going to school if they know at least one other student in their class,” Shore says. “If you move during the summer, find out the names of children who live nearby and are the same age as your children. Put aside social inhibition and try to arrange some play dates so your children can meet those children,” Shore says. “The social connections will be important in your child’s overall adjustment to school.”
Even if your child hasn’t moved or changed schools, getting in touch with classmates before school starts can help break the ice for many kids. Pediatric nurse practitioner and mother Meredith Pasciuto from Dedham, Mass., suggests reconnecting with friends just before school starts.
“I know my middle schooler gets very anxious since he does not know who will be in his class until the very first day of school,” Pasciuto says. She knows that a late summer get-together of his friends from the end of the previous school year can “give him confidence that even if he doesn’t have his very best friend in class, he will most likely have someone from the group.”
3. New school? Keep the old friends, too. If your child is starting at a new school, parents can help bridge the emotional gap between making new friends and leaving a familiar circle of friends by encouraging kids to keep in touch. This is particularly important for middle and high school children. “This age group places a great importance on their friends and consequently the transition can be harder,” Shore says. “Helping them make and keep those connections is important.” He adds that it’s easy today for kids to stay in touch with friends from other communities thanks to cell phones, Internet phone calling, and social media. “This can help a lot,” he says.
4. Get the kids involved. Create opportunities for your children to meet others their own age who have similar interests. Some examples include public library and recreation programs, scouting, sports teams, and church groups.
5. Parents should get involved, too. Make time to meet the other parents and get to know your child’s friends and teachers. Volunteer to be a room parent or maybe coach your child’s sports team this year.
6. Visit the school. Arrange a visit to the school with your children before school begins, Shore suggests. “You’ll want to find out about school hours, lunch policy, bus arrangements, and the school calendar. Ask if you can have a brief tour of the school. While walking around, make note of other students’ dress so you can help your children dress in a way that helps them feel comfortable.”
7. Get into a groove. Since having a routine helps reduce worry and stress, establishing back-to-school procedures is important. And it’s important to begin these procedures a week or so before school starts. Help your child know what’s expected of him each night before school: Practice having him lay out his clothes the night before, then brush his teeth and read before bed. Same goes for the morning routine: Have your child practice waking up on time, getting dressed, eating breakfast, then leaving for school on time. Doing this before school starts will help everyone know what to anticipate—and that means things are bound to go more smoothly on that first day of school.
8. Get organized. Take the time to create order. Designate a spot where backpacks will go, create folders for each child where the plethora of papers that come home from school can be filed, and have a white board handy to write down things you don’t want to forget. Also, make sure you have all the tools needed and a place where your child will study and do homework. Doing all this helps set expectations before school starts.
9. Don’t talk it up. Pasciuto says that although many parents like to make a big deal about going back to school, for some children who are worried about the first day, keeping things low-key is better. Parents know their child’s personality and understand whether counting down till the first day is exciting for her or instead fills her with panic. “One of my sons actually cries when he sees the back-to-school ads on TV, so we try to keep a sense of normalcy around the house and don’t begin even talking about back to school till just a few days before,” Pasciuto says. And make sure your child gets to sleep on time and eats well. Those two factors alone can affect the mood of a child.
10. Get regular progress reports. Once the first day of school has come and gone, you’ll still want to know how your child is doing. Take time to connect with your child’s teacher, not just at the beginning of the school year but even after a few weeks or months to see how your child is transitioning. A child can tell you “everything is fine,” but is that the reality? Ask the teacher for insights. Is your child making new friends? Keeping up with the workload? Are there any challenge areas you should be aware of? The school year is a work in progress, and parents need to stay involved throughout the year.
More than anything, let your child know that you believe in him and that he can have a successful first day. And reassure him that you’ll discuss his first day that evening, when you’re both happily back home.