For most parents and kids, getting ready for school means buying a new backpack, stocking up on pencils and school supplies, dressing in cool new clothes and working out transportation. Preparing the child emotionally can be overlooked. It’s human nature. No one likes change, and buying a new set of crayons is a lot less stressful than thinking about new school year worries. Still, there are some specific things you can do to make the transition easier for both you and your child.
TIP #1: LISTEN. BE AVAILABLE.
If you hear a lot of bragging or denial about the return to school, it’s a pretty sure sign that anxiety lies behind the words. Ask a couple of questions “around the edges:” “Who are you looking forward to seeing?” NOT, “Are you worried about school starting?” The latter is almost sure to shut the child down.
TIP #2: THIS ONE MAY BE HARD TO BELIEVE
Children’s biggest concern about transitions is whether they can stay connected with you. Reassuring children that you will still have time together and that you know they are safe is the most important way you can help them get ready for school. You know you are always there for them; they may need reassurance at this time — even children who have done this “a million times.”
Many children benefit from a “transitional object” that reminds them of mother. An easy one is to paste a photo of you and the child in the lid of the child’s lunch box or backpack in a place where they can keep the prying eyes of others away. You can also offer something small of yours that you pick out together. An electronic device is not a transitional object!
Older children also benefit from transitional objects. In my novel ALMOST PERFECT, fourteen year-old Benny, who has ADHD and mild autism, imagines that he and his mother share their own special star. He looks for it at night as a way to stay connected with her. Of course, the book’s most important “transitional objects” are the dogs that Benny comes to love. The entire story is really about how he uses the dogs to mature and develop into all he can be.
TIP #3: PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
- Practice how the child will get to school. Drive the route. Talk him/her through it. Who will drive? Who will pick up?
- Tell the child how the school can contact you. Be specific.
- Visit the school. If possible, meet the teacher. Where is his/her desk? Where is the office? Where is the playground? Former classmates?
- Visit former teachers and say “hi.” It helps children understand that important adults don’t disappear out of their lives.
TIP #4: ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE
Kids often fight routine, but once it is established firmly in their minds, it actually makes them feel safer. A couple of weeks before school starts is the time to get back into the groove. Children feel more secure when there is a consistent plan. Set times for going to bed and getting up, getting dressed, meal times will make life easier when school actually starts with a host of additional adjustments to be made.
TIP #5: PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE
Going to a new class is a challenge. ALMOST PERFECT illustrates this in a scene when a new girl enters Benny’s special class. It shows the point of view of the new girl, who clings to her mother. She is helped when the teachers lets her mother stay a short while until the girl settles down without forcing a “child-ectomy.” (We are NOT recommending that parents stay in the class for extended periods of time.) The scene also shows the point of view of the children in the class who have been there for a while. Their ambivalent feelings are expressed by Benny (“Not another new student!”) at the same time readers know he would like a new friend. Finally, the teacher’s role in preparing the children is shown. She has told the children ahead of time, before the new girl arrives, and advises them to remember how they felt on their first day.
By keeping in my your child’s emotional needs, you both can get off to a better start on the first day or school and for the rest of the year.
Dr. Felecia Powell-Williams, Clinical Director of the New School in the Heights (www.newschoolheights.org) generously co-authored this post.