Going back to school can be stressful for kids, and they might have worries about school that they're not sharing with you. A seasoned teacher offers parents tips on how to start conversations about making friends, fitting in, starting new classes, and getting back into the school routine.
Most parents are aware going back to school can be a stressful time for a child. What parents often fail to consider is that the obvious causes of stress such as new teachers, friends, and homework, may not be what is actually weighting on their children. Parents get caught up in their own worries of organizing back to school routines, often making assumptions that what they worry about for their child is the root of their child's concerns. Taking the time to have an earnest chat with your child about their back-to-school fears might greatly surprise you and be of great benefit to them.
Every child is different. The best way to find out what's on your child's mind is to ask them gentle, non-judgmental, questions about how they feel about returning to school.
Here are a few conversation starters to open up dialogue:
How do you feel about entering a new class?
Most children attach great importance to their social life. The child who has many friends finds it incredibly important to return to the same circle of friends once school begins, or to at least know that some of them will be there. The child who has fewer friends or has difficulty making new friends also finds it very important to be in the same class as her friends. For her, the thought of having no one to relate to can be quite anxiety provoking. By asking your child openly how they feel about entering a new class, you can gauge if this is a concern and talk through possible solutions.
How are you feeling about starting at a new school?
Changing schools or entering into secondary school can be an emotionally tolling transition. Your child will need someone to talk to and reassure her that she will soon get to know new people and begin making new friendships. Avoid dismissing your child's worries by saying things like "of course you'll make new friends." This undermines not only her feelings, but also the value of her friendships.
Instead, listen to your child as you would a friend, and tell her why you believe she will meet new people. Once school starts, be the first to ask how her day was and what her new peers were like. If she has not moved schools, ask her which friends she ended up with this year, and how she feels about it.
What are you going to miss most about summertime?
Having had the entire summer to frolic in the sun, some children stress about having no time to play once school starts. For many, this is the biggest source of stress, and can bring anxiety attacks, loss of appetite, loss of sleep, stomachaches and other symptoms. To help your child cope, sit down together and plan his days in a large calendar, scheduling enough time for play after school. It will be very helpful for your child to be able to have a visual picture, and to work on those issues with you.
Are you worried about fitting in at school?
Children want to feel accepted for who they are. They also want to bring a unique sense of contribution to their group, which gives them a sense of belonging. Ask your child what it means to belong and feel a part of the group. This will allow you to help where you see him struggling. Children often will insist on wearing special clothes to school, getting a new hairstyle, or bringing a special toy or game. These tactics help them associate with their peers and fit in. You can help your child by asking him how he envisions himself on his first day of school. Help him prepare all the things he needs for that special day. For some, shopping for special clothes with you is an excellent mental preparation. For others, simply talking about it is enough. This is also the perfect time to show your child that no matter what he wears or brings to school, he will be appreciated for who he is and for how he treats others.
Are you worried about feeling rushed in the mornings?
This is a common stressor for children. Just as adults do, children stress at the thought of missing the school bus, or being late for class. Think back to the previous year and try to remember whether or not you allotted sufficient time in the mornings to get ready, have breakfast and leave for school without feeling extremely rushed. If you remember being constantly in a hurry, set your alarm 10 minutes earlier and ensure you take the time to wake up, have a good breakfast and leave on time. A few organization tips that can help are:
- Teach your child to prepare everything in his backpack the day before. If dressing takes a long time, have him prepare his clothes for the following day as well.
- Wake your child up five minutes before it is time to get up, and give her five more minutes to get out of bed. We all like to sleep in a little, and demanding that a child jump out of bed in the morning is not always the best approach.
- Start going to bed earlier the week before school starts, to get accustomed to the school bedtime hours.
For every child, starting school is both exciting and stressful. Your enthusiasm about the start of the school year will make all the difference to them. Aside from talking to them about their worries, tell them how excited you feel about meeting their new teacher, and getting to know their new friends.
In the first few weeks of school, make sure your child has plenty of time to play, rest and adjust. Help your child organize play dates, so he feels less the change of pace and more the excitement of being reunited with friends.
Also see: October Check-In: How to Assess Your Child's Progress in School
How to Manage Children's Back-to-School Anxiety: Tips from Dr. Susan Bartell