The beginning of the year brings up a range of feelings for students of all ages. There is the promise of a fresh start: new notebooks, pencils and crayons, different teachers and classmates. Some kids are eager to see old friends they have not seen all summer and catch up on their new experiences. Students may feel excited about trying a new activity, such as a drama club or a sport. They may be excited about building on the skills and passions that they discovered over the summer months.
For many students (of all ages) and parents, however, returning to school can also be a time of great stress. There can be anxiety about making new friends, adjusting to a new school or class, separating from family members, facing expectations of new teachers, not to mention sitting still for hours a day!
Here are some tips to help you and your child cope with the beginning of the school year and to ease the transition:
Adjust the Schedule
It is likely that your child will need to wake up much earlier than they had been during the summer in order to get to school on time. Many older children stay up into the early hours of the morning when school is out and sleep late into the day. It might take some time to get back on track, so it is a good idea to start going to sleep at a reasonable hour a few days before school starts. Even if there is some resistance to the idea of going to bed earlier (it can be an unwanted reminder that the summer is nearly over, after all) predictable routines can be comforting and will help prepare your child for going back to school.
This is a great time to speak about your child’s goals for the school year. What does she want to achieve? This discussion does not need to be limited to grades. Does she want to make a new friend? Maybe take a risk by trying a new club (or even starting one)? Perhaps she is shy in school, but wants to set a goal of raising her hand to answer a question at least once a day. If necessary, you can help your child clarify and quantify the goal. If she has trouble articulating goals, you can make suggestions or give some choices and ask your child how that sounds. Be supportive and help your child to think about goals that are realistic. You can then review periodically with your child and assess progress, add support systems or make changes to the goals, if necessary.
Help Normalize Feelings
Accept that your child may be anxious during the transition and help him understand that this is a normal reaction to school for many of his classmates. Parents (with the best of intentions) may feel the need to say something like “oh, there is no need to worry. You will be fine. School will be great. Don’t be nervous.” While encouragement is great, it is also important to validate the anxiety your child has. “I see that you are feeling anxious about school and I know it must feel hard. It is OK to feel anxious. I am sure many others are feeling the same way. Let’s talk about how you are feeling.” You can empathize with a memory of your first day of school or a new job and how you felt at first and adjusted.
Set up play dates
For younger children, seeing a familiar face on the first day of school can go a long way to alleviate anxiety. If you are able to arrange a play date prior to school starting (or if not, in the first couple of weeks) with a classmate, this can be helpful.
Try to create as calm an environment as possible for the first day of school. Get everything ready the night before (clothes, supplies, lunch or lunch money, etc) so there will be no need to scramble in the morning. Try your best to avoid unnecessary arguments.
Send transitional object
For a younger child who is having trouble separating, you can send along a small object he can keep in his back pack or pocket during the day. The object can be a photo (or anything really) that acts as a symbolic connection to you and reminds them that you will think about him and see him at the end of the school day. You can also send a note in your child’s lunch with words of encouragement, telling him how proud you are of him.
Make sure accommodations are in place
If your child has an IEP, make sure the teacher is aware and that it is being implemented. Follow up with the school/service providers to introduce yourself and make sure that the services are being provided (counseling, speech, OT, PT, SETTS, etc). If your child receives extra time on tests or takes them in a separate location, ensure early in the year that these accommodations are set up for him.
Enlist school help if necessary
In addition to the teacher/s, there are often professionals who your child can go to for a check-in during the school day. Find out who the social workers,school psychologist or guidance counselors are and how your child can seek them out if she needs extra support. Some children have counseling individually or in groups built into their schedules, while others can go on an ad-hoc basis for drop-ins.
One day at a time
The beginning of the school year can be overwhelming for many students. Parents can remind their children that adjustments take time. Life might feel hectic and even out of control, but this is temporary. Slowly and with your support, they will get used to the workload, the social challenges and the new teachers.
Let us know in the comments section if you have found other useful back to school tips.
Cope With School NYC is a New York City based child, adolescent, and young adult psychotherapy practice. Cope With School NYC provides a full range of psychotherapy services with a special focus on school functioning and social skills.
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