Helping Your Children Return to School

School. Transitions. In so many ways, school is about learning to cope with transitions. Every year, it’s a new teacher, new subject matter, new classroom, and different classmates. Sometimes it’s a new building or a new community. Children are required to end the school year, shift into the summer mode for a few months, then start the cycle again each fall.

Fortunately most children are very resilient and don’t merely adjust to these transitions but often do so eagerly because of their love for novelty and change. Nevertheless, we know that some of these transitions pose more significant challenges and that some children experience great distress with any form of change. Parents often ask for guidelines about how to assist children when change is a challenge. The major concerns tend to be starting kindergarten and first grade, going from elementary to middle school, and moving to a new community.

The Children’s Issues
Some children will be simply be concerned about the unknown, i.e., an experience that is completely unfamiliar. Those with personalities that tend to prefer sameness and order will be even more worried. Children who are less secure have more difficulty when the transition means greater separation from parents (increased school day, a bus ride instead of a walk or ride in the family car) or siblings (when a brother or sister no longer goes to the same school). The key factors in helping children to adjust to these transitions are parental validation that the anxiety is normal and sufficient opportunities to visit the new setting until there is an acceptable degree of familiarity. Additional techniques that can be helpful include creating books about the change, arranging a buddy system, and providing an opportunity to return to the prior setting.

The Parents’ Issues
Many children have difficulty with these transitions because they are picking up on the parents’ fears that their children will have a problem. Sometimes it is simply a parent’s struggle to accept the child’s growth and natural process of moving ever further away from the earlier intimacy. Sometimes it is an appropriate concern about a child who has difficulty with change. It works out easier if parents are able to be continually excited about each new stage in a child’s life and to believe in their ability to help the child adjust successfully. It is especially important to believe that even if the child struggles at first, it will eventually be okay. A common stumbling block is the parents’ fear that if their child struggles, it’s a negative reflection on them. That’s why it is so important to not only view problems with transitions as a normal experience for many children, but to keep in mind that these early patterns do not project ahead to adult struggles. My oldest son was accurately described as slow-to-warm-up to new situations when he was young. As an adult he is a confident, entrepreneurial type who thrives on change!

Strategies To Implement

  • Have your child visit the new environment, even if it is just a different classroom. Schools routinely arrange class trips when shifting to middle schools but a private tour with a school person during the summer can be the little extra that soothes concerns.

  • Be sure to inform the new teacher if your child is known to struggle with transitions. This enables the teacher to be extra helpful. Don’t be afraid of labeling your child. The better the teacher understands your child, the stronger the partnership between caretakers.

  • Create a book about the transition. This gives a child the opportunity to express and process concerns in modalities other than oral discussion.

  • Tell the child that being anxious about this change is normal. Try to draw out the specific worries. Common concerns include: the work will be hard, the teacher might be mean, the child might get homesick (starting first grade, even if a child has previously been in all-day programs), nobody will sit with him on the bus, what if she forgets her lunch money, and fears about puberty/big kids or getting lost (starting middle school). Validate the feelings first before attempting to try to reduce the worry.

  • If a child doesn’t have an older sibling in the school to be a resource, work with a parent of a good friend or find a child from a class list where a relationship can be established over the summer. The buddy system can simply consist of somebody who promises to sit with your child on the bus during the first week (or walk together) or just provide the comfort of a familiar face in the class or a partner to walk with to the next class.

  • Early into the school year, some children may be struggling with sad feelings about the loss of last year’s familiar setting. Arrange a return visit, which reconfirms old relationships and typically results in the child talking excitedly about her new school.

Overcoming Challenges Creates Confidence
Struggles with school-based transitions should be viewed as an opportunity for a child to develop stronger coping skills. True self-esteem emerges from overcoming obstacles. The role of a parent is not to remove obstacles but to assist the child in working through them. Don’t be disappointed that your child is having some difficulties. Instead view it as an opportunity for valuable growth.