It’s very natural for children to be nervous about going back to school. These anxious feelings are expected to last prior to and during the transition to the academic year. As a licensed professional counselor who worked in the school for many years, I find this to be most true for young children starting school for the first time ever and for teenagers making the switch to high school or middle school. Expect that this transition could be stressful; not only for your child, but even for the whole family as well! Some of you may have noticed your child has great joy in starting school, while on the flip side when discussing school or attending an orientation, they may display negative reactions. For pre-school or kindergarten-aged children, the anxiety may be displayed through making verbal remarks about not wanting to go to school, crying, throwing temper tantrums and becoming excessively clingy! Older kids seem to internalize their feelings a little more and may complain of headaches or stomach pains, withdraw, and becoming increasingly irritable. This particular article is written for those with younger children; however, many of the suggestions can be modified for older children and adolescents.
Step 1: Reduce the worry
The first thing we must do is empathize with our children and help them reduce their anxiety. We need to assure them that for the most part, worries are normal and very common. Take time to listen to their concerns and provide them with empathy and answers. The best way to communicate this to our kids is to address what is bothering them and provide them with comfort by reducing the unknown. Simple things like a conversation and attending a pre-arranged meeting or orientation is critical. They need to know: where their school is, what classroom they will be in, who their teacher will be, and understand that their school is a safe, healthy, and fun place.
Step 2: Stay ‘Solutions’ Focused
Once you have begun to address what’s worrying them you can move to being ‘solutions’ focused. This a great opportunity for your child to feel empowered that they can come up with coping skills and solutions to overcome their concerns. When they say they are worried about a certain scenario, ask them what they think they could do. For example, my son asked me “what if my friends don’t know my name?” I asked him if he could think of other times he went somewhere and wanted to play with other children but didn’t know their name. He was able to think of a time. I asked him about a particular positive memory of meeting a close friend. He was able to make the connection of how he meets friends at common places like the park and how he introduces himself and asks for friends names as a way to meet new people. I love this step because it gives your kids confidence and autonomy to work through realistic situations and even situations that aren’t.
Step 3: Education and Exposure
As mentioned previously, visiting the school and classroom prior to the school year beginning is most important. You could even rehearse the drop off and spend time on the school’s playground leading up to the big day. Another idea is to setup a play date with a friend before school starts. Research has shown that the presence of a familiar peer during school transitions can improve children’s academic and emotional adjustment. Sometimes role-playing worrisome situations can help them work throw their concerns. Allow your child to play different roles, they can be the teacher, peers, or even their self. The important part is to model appropriate responses and coping strategies to help them calm down. One of my favorite things to do with my kids is to read them stories about school. A few that we have really enjoyed include: Mouse’s Big Day by Linda Monks, Mouse’s First Day of School by Lauren Thompson and The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn.
Step 4: Routine and Structure
Most children thrive when a schedule or routine is consistent. A week or two before school, start preparing children for the upcoming transition by getting back-to-school routines, such as a realistic bedtime and selecting tomorrow’s clothes. A week or two before school starts, begin preparing everyone for the upcoming transition by getting back into the school year routines. This can be tough! After later summer bed times it can be hard to adjust getting up earlier. That is why starting a realistic bedtime early is essential. Have them help make their lunch or look at the school menu, as well as set out clothing the night before the first day of school.
Step 5: The Big Day
Make the day stress free; allow plenty of time to go through your morning routine and arrive to school on time. It’s best to arrive fashionably early so they can slowly settle in before the real action starts. The first day can be just as emotional for parents; it’s important to put that game face on and stay positive. One of the biggest suggestions I can give as both a parent and professional is to keep the good-bye short and sweet! When it’s your cue to make an exit, hold back your tears just a little longer, reassure you are coming back soon, give them a big hug, and move out quickly! Do not, I repeat DO NOT, linger. It is best to not sneak out when they are looking the other way. It’s likely to cause some feelings of insecurity. When you pick them up be sure to praise them for their bravery!
Beyond first day jitters!
If your child is feeling anxious past the transition time or anxiety levels are so high it is causing them distress and impairment for enjoying school, it is important to take action sooner than later. Keep your teacher in the loop and let the guidance counselor at the school know right away. Did you know that every elementary school and middle school in the state of Maryland is mandated to a professional licensed counselor in the school? In Charles County, Tri-County Youth Services Bureau was given a grant to provide counseling and behavioral health services to students and their families. Be sure to ask about the School-Based Counseling program if you feel additional help is needed.
Keep up to date on schedules, information, calendar and inclement weather:
- Calvert County- http://www.calvertnet.k12.md.us or sign up for free text messages and emails at: http://www.calvertnet.k12.md.us/utilities/listserve/notificationsystem.asp
- Charles County- http://www.ccboe.com or sign up for free texts and emails at: charlescountymd.gov/CNS
- St. Mary’s County- http://www.smcps.org or sign up for free texts and emails at: ready.csmd.edu/emergency.html
Resource for parents:
Cheers and Tears Event
- Date: Tuesday, September 8, 2017
- Time: 5:00 AM – 8:00 AM
- Location: Chick-fil-a, Waldorf, MD
- Details: Some of us are crying, tears-eyed and blue, Some of us are cheering that the long, hot summer is through. Whatever mood you’re feeling, Stop by and stay awhile. We’ll be here to bring you tissues or party horns And a smile! Join Chick-fil-a in Waldorf for breakfast after you drop off your children for their first day of school.
MOPS- MOMS OF PRESCHOOLERS
Find a local chapter near you: http://www.mops.org/