The sun is shining, the grass is green, and it’s warm outside. The dew is still on the grass, and it’s time to take your child to school for the first day of the year. Children are lining up for their classrooms with their new backpacks and school clothes. Everything looks new and shiny. A few photos are being snapped, and parents are chatting with each other as everyone waits for the bell to ring. The day is rife with excitement and energy. Some children seem happy, some nervous, and some quiet.
You look over at your child and – SCREEEEEECH – the idyllic moment has ended. She is starting to cry and hold onto your leg – tightly. “I don’t want to go,” she says in an outburst. “Oh, no,” you think, “What should I do now?”
Luckily, if you are reading this, you have time to think about this situation and your child’s needs. You have time to help prepare your child for the start of school so hopefully your child’s morning goes smoothly without emotional challenges. Many things can help a child prepare for the start of the school year, and as many parents know, it’s not just about the school shopping.
Step 1: Start with the Basics
Adjust into a healthy sleep routine
Being rested improves memory, mood and motivation, all of which are important for the start of school. During the summer, with longer periods of daylight and fewer early morning activities, kids’ bedtimes often become later and later. If parents wait until school starts before getting their children ready, kids can become easily overtired and emotional. Because it takes people a few weeks to adjust to a new, earlier sleep schedule, it will be important for parents to gradually provide earlier bedtimes, and earlier wake-up times so that their child is rested and ready to go when school starts.
Adjust to a new lunch/snack routine
School also brings new eating habits. Given how short public school lunch periods can be, a good breakfast is essential during the school year. Make sure your child is in the habit of eating something! Empty stomachs can increase concentration and anxiety concerns. Also, work with your child on exploring healthy lunch choices that they can eat effortlessly, such as cheese, applesauce, and peanut butter. You may want to even practice monitoring how long it takes your children to eat certain foods in order to help make sure you can pick suitable foods for their lunches and snacks. For example, many children find that they can eat steamed vegetables more easily than raw ones. Although cumbersome, if it is the difference between food being eaten or thrown away, it may be an important consideration for making sure your child gets an appropriate amount of nutrition at school.
Step 2: Calm the Back to School Butterflies
Many children are worried about going back to school. If you suspect your child is worried, it will help to talk to her about it, and see if you can determine what has her so concerned. However, if she cannot tell you, this is also normal, as sometimes children have difficulty labeling specific concerns. They just know they feel nervous or uneasy.
Often, the unfamiliarity of the new school year concerns children. Your child may not know what to expect, even if she has previously been in the building. Many times, school will feel more familiar if you visit her school over the summer, walk through the building or playground, and see the general area of your child’s classroom. Many schools in Iowa have an ice cream social the week before school starts, which helps your child familiarize herself with her surroundings. However, if you suspect your child is anxious, it is ok to at least walk around the outside of the building and play on the playground during the summer as well. The goal is for your child to face her fears in a fun and comfortable way.
Another potential worry for children is peer relationships. If you are lucky enough to know some of your child’s classmates, arranging a play-date with a school friend (or two) on the playground in the days or weeks before school starts may help to ease social discomfort. Often, children find out who their teachers and classmates are a few days before school starts. If you child knows another child in their class, arranging for him or her to meet your child at school on the first day of class may also really help.
If your child is nervous about her teacher, sending an e-mail or making an attempt to meet her teacher during the night of the ice cream social (or any back-to-school event) will likely be very helpful for both you and your child. If her teacher is not available, even looking at his or her picture on the school’s website can be helpful. You can remind your child that most teachers also share anxiety about the start of school in the fall!
If your child has been bullied or has had peer difficulties, starting school can be upsetting. Bullying is most common in situations that aren’t well supervised or when adults are not responsive to these issues. If your child has faced these issues, it will be helpful to connect her to a trustworthy adult at school, such as a counselor, principal, or playground attendant before school starts so she can feel safe and protected. It may help to review (and practice) what your child can do if another child is insensitive or aggressive to her. Role-plays can be a wonderful way to practice, and parents and children can take turns with the different roles.
Starting some stress management routines at home can also be helpful. Teach your child how to take slow deep breaths, and use them daily (when life isn’t so scary). You can practice at different times during the day, like before bed, when you are in the car, or when you are waiting for a sibling. The more skilled your child is with these exercises now, the more helpful they will be when her anxiety kicks in. You may also practice some self-talk statements, like “I can do it!” or “New things are good.” Remembering positive things from the previous school year can also be beneficial. Look at school pictures or pictures of classroom trips or activities to refresh your child’s viewpoint.
Another very helpful tool is to practice the school drop-off. Most younger children love to play school, and this may be a helpful way to introduce the topic to your child. You could pretend to get dressed, to have breakfast, and get out the backpack. Next, practice saying good-bye to mom or dad, and going into the classroom with “all the fun kids.” You could pretend that you are nervous, and remind your child how to stay calm with breathing and by using good thoughts like, “I am brave,” or “School is fun – this is no big deal!”
Last, but not least, take care of yourself. Your child will look for your reactions. It is best to keep school drop-offs short, sweet, and unemotional. If you look worried or concerned, it will reinforce your child’s apprehension. It is good to let your child know that you understand her feelings. But, if you can convey your trust and confidence in her, she will use those cues to help her cope. If you feel that you may become emotional during the drop off at school or bus, it may be helpful to arrange for you to say a brief good-bye earlier, and have another trusted loved one drop off for the first day.
After the first few weeks, most children find the transition to school becomes much easier. Remember to keep drop-offs brief and unemotional, if possible. If you need help transitioning your child, talk to her teacher or principal. Most teachers are very understanding and very helpful in these matters, and may be willing to meet your child at the door to help the transition into the classroom. Also, feel free to contact a child psychologist if your child’s anxiety remains high. We are there to help.
**Special thanks to our Guest Blogger, Cindy Nichols Anderson, Ph.D., ABPP for sharing these tips with us today!
Dr. Anderson is a Board Certified Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychologist in Iowa City, IA. She currently owns and manages Hope Springs Behavioral Consultants, and is honored to work with a team of wonderful and talented psychologists and staff. You can learn more about the practice at www.hopespringsbc.com.