How to Prep Your Child for the Transition
Going back to school can be an exciting time for kids, and parents! It can also be a time when you notice your child’s anxiety heighten. New teachers, new kids, different schedule and many other changes may leave your child asking 101 questions- what, who, when, and “do I have to?”! It can be just as anxiety provoking for parents to leave their tearful preschooler standing frozen in the doorway to the classroom.
The question is how can we best accommodate our kids’ anxiety (without enabling!) and prepare them for a smoother transition.
Weeks Before School
- Avoid giving reassurance, for example, “You’re going to be fine, no need to worry!” Instead, listen to and validate their worries. Then, collaborate with your child to create a plan. Your job is not to solve all of their concerns about new friends, a difficult subject or changes in schedule, but brainstorm some coping skills and strategies they can use.
- Take your child to the school playground or cafeteria. Let them play and explore. If there are other kids at the playground, facilitate joint play. Give your child specific praise and positive encouragement!
- If summer routines were whacky, try to normalize your child’s routine the week leading back to school. Some suggestions are:
- Reestablishing school bedtime routines and morning routines
- Incorporating some school rituals into their day, such as flashcard practice or daily reading. It is not necessary to go full drive with schoolwork, but a soft start can make the beginning of the year less of an adjustment.
- Engage your child in back to school activities, such as picking out school supplies or planning lunches for the first week!
School is starting!
- If your child has difficulty separating, plan a hand off. If the teacher is unavailable, maybe there is a buddy in the class, the school nurse, counselor or secretary. Have an adult ready to take his hand and engage him in a job or fun activity.
- Goodbye hugs are okay, but avoid lingering! Do the hand off, tell your child, “I love you, I’ll be back at 3pm,” and head out the door.
- If your child has a history of impairing separation anxiety or social anxiety, you may want to take the extra step of reaching out and asking if you can bring your child by the classroom before school starts. Communicate that your child will be much more successful this year if he can stop by, meet the teacher and see the classroom before the chaotic first day. Teachers are very busy before school starts, so this can be tricky! If the teacher gives the OK, bring an activity your child enjoys, play together in the classroom and invite the teacher to come play with you both.
When to reach out for help?
Going through a transition year such as Kindergarten or middle school, having a best friend leave, or moving to a new home, are stressors for most kids. Discomfort during this transition is normal and will likely subside a few weeks into school.
First ask, am I sticking to the routine, giving a lot of positive reinforcement and have I communicated with my child’s teachers?
If it is a yes to all these questions, and weeks into school your child is having major meltdowns each morning, or refusing to go to school, it may be time to reach out for support from your pediatrician or a mental health provider.
Signs That Anxiety Might be Impairing
When children experience internal anxiety about school, it can manifest in many different ways. If your child is prone to anxiety and struggling to adjust to school, here are some behaviors or symptoms to keep an eye out for:
- Refusal to go to school for several days in a row. The longer a child refuses and avoids school, the more her anxiety is reinforced. If the resistance is strong and your child is missing days of school, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional.
- At drop off your child is crying and clinging to you, even weeks into school. After drop off, your child is taking hours to return to baseline and sometimes she is unable to join the class throughout the whole day. She is sitting by herself, unable to speak or socially interact with teachers and/or peers.
- Your child does not have the flu or a cold, and is reporting several stomachaches and/or headaches on a daily basis.
Even though anxiety can be scary and impairing, children are resilient! With the right support and accommodations, your child will find the tools to be ready to happily, jump right back into class.