By Dr. Tyffani Monford Dent
Everywhere you look, there are signs trumpeting “back to school.” For many of us, it seems as if school just ended, and yet we are already planning for our children to go back. Shopping for school clothes and supplies can be a stressful experience for parents, but the prospect of returning to school or starting school for the first time can provoke anxiety in our children.
Transition can be a very difficult situation, regardless of the age or circumstances. As adults, we worry when we are moving to a new city or starting a new job. Being adults, we are supposed to possess the emotional maturity, problem-solving ability, and coping skills to adequately deal with such life changes. Even then, we still struggle with change. Now, imagine how it must be for a young child who has not yet developed such skills. The saying “first impressions last a lifetime” can be adjusted to “first experiences can shape our impressions of school and learning.” It is imperative that we assist our children in transitioning into school so that their first experience in the school setting is one of comfort and excitement instead of fear and anxiety.
In preparing our children to return to school or start school, we must be willing to utilize strategies to decrease their anxiety.
- Don’t let them see you sweat. Our children are very attuned to our feelings. If they see that you are nervous or stressed about their returning to or starting school, it will only heighten their anxiety. As parents, we are often looked at as the protector or the invincible ones. If we are petrified of the school year starting, our children are likely to figure that they should be as well. It is okay to share your own experiences with anxiety and going back to school in the past, but make sure you offer your child a “silver lining” or share how you solved the problem when you retell your own school stories.
- Make school a familiar place. Take your children past the school where they will be attending. Let them know that this is “their school.” If the school has an open house prior to school starting, take your children. Let them meet their teachers and sit in the desk in their classrooms. School now becomes a place they know and not one that they should fear.
- Don’t dismiss your child’s concerns about school. Regardless of whether you think that his or her concerns are not that serious, remember they are important to your child. Whether it is a concern from a previous school year or about what this first year will be like, talk to your child about his or her concern. Assist your child in problem solving. If it is not a problem but more of a concern (e.g. not being able to do as well academically as other students), come up with a plan on how you can begin to address the issue now (e.g. doing some work each night prior to school starting in that subject or talking with the teacher about extra help).
- Help make friends/connections before the school year starts. Find out if there are kids in your neighborhood who are attending the same school. If so, schedule outings and visits with their parents to allow your child to “know someone” when he or she is entering school. Often our children seek connections/relationships and knowing that they will be attending school with friends can make school something to which they look forward.
- Let them assist in the preparation. When it’s time to shop for school supplies and clothes, have your children be a major part of selecting the items needed. Although all Crayola 24-packs look the same, letting your children “pick” their crayons allows them to be a part of the school planning process. If possible, have your children pick their outfits for the first day of school. Everyone likes some level of control, and sometimes school can feel like something over which children have none.
- Have run-throughs. A week or so prior to the start of school, have your children begin to do the routine expected of them when school starts. This includes bedtimes, waking up for meals, etc. Change in routine can cause distress and therefore, do not wait until the first day of school to add routine changes to all of the other “new events” that occur when your children are starting school.
- Allow a “piece of home” to go with them. For younger children who may be experiencing anxiety about being away from home for the first time, help them identify a small object or toy that they can take with them to school that reminds them of home. Make sure that the item is small and is something that is allowed in the children’s school.
- Treat the first day of school like a celebration. Share your excitement with your child about his or her starting or returning to school. Plan a special meal to celebrate and discuss the first day of school. Encourage your child to talk about the good and difficult situations associated with the first day and problem-solve or empathize where needed.
- Have some “alone time” for yourself. No matter how old our children get, many of us will still cry when we drop them off or put them on the bus that first day back to school. Make sure that you take the necessary “cry time” after your child has already gone to school. Remember, back to school is also hard for us.
Dr. Tyffani Monford Dent is a licensed psychologist, author, and speaker. She is the author of the book Girls Got Issues: A Woman’s Guide to Self-discovery & Healing and is completing her second emotional wellness book geared toward the needs of girls aged 11-15. Follow her on Twitter @DrTyffaniMDent or on Facebook at Dr. Tyffani Monford Dent.