By Dr. Sarah Sumwalt, Director of Social & Emotional Learning and Counselor at The Langley School
It’s always amazing how, in a blink of an eye, August is upon us and we are gearing up for the transition back to school. Of course, the start of school brings excitement as children look forward to seeing their friends, meeting their teachers, and beginning a new adventure. However, this transition can also yield a great deal of anxiety for children, adolescents, and parents alike. The transition to early mornings, structure, separation from home, new friends, and homework can all elicit feelings of anxiety, frustration, and even dread. Importantly, these feelings are very typical and are experienced by many students across the Arc of Development. In an effort to ease the transition and begin to prepare our students (and ourselves!) for the return to school, below are some helpful tips and strategies for students and families.
1. Talk, Talk, Talk!
One of the most important things we can do for our children is to engage them in a conversation focused on how they are feeling about the transition back to school. However, questions such as, “How are you feeling?” often end with one-word answers (i.e., “fine”). Instead, ask questions that encourage more detailed responses such as, “What are three things that you are most looking forward to?” or “What are two things that you are worried about?” It is important that any and all feelings are validated at this point in the conversation. Often, in an attempt to reassure, adults may respond with, “Oh, but there’s nothing to be worried about!” However, this type of response leaves children feeling worse since it is the behavior or thoughts, not the feeling, that they can control.
If specific worries or concerns are identified, shift the conversation toward action. Below are a few examples of commonly expressed worries across age groups as well as possible action steps.
Preschool/Early Elementary School Worries
- “I will miss my parents during the day”
For young children who are expressing concerns about the separation from parents or who have difficulty separating, it can be helpful to identify a transitional object (i.e., stuffed animal, blanket) that they can bring to school. Often this object can be faded out once the child is comfortable in his/her new classroom. In addition, The Kissing Handby Audrey Penn as well as The Invisible Stringby Patrice Karst are two wonderful stories with positive messages about transitions and separations.
- “I won’t have any friends”
Concerns and worries about friendships are extremely common (at any age), but can be especially prevalent for younger children who are entering a new school, who do not know any children well in their new class, or who are prone to worries. To ease this concern, it can be very beneficial to schedule a few play dates with new classmates. Having just one familiar face can go a long way in alleviating anxiety about not having any friends. Young children also benefit from reminders about what to do and say to make new friends. Engaging your child in some role plays about what to say or how to start a conversation with a friend can increase children’s confidence.
Middle/Late Elementary School Worries
- “I won’t like my teacher”
Worries about teachers are also quite common, especially if children have older siblings or friends and have heard specific comments about certain teachers. In these situations, an effective strategy can be validating the emotion while also helping the child to be flexible in his/her thinking. For example, encourage children to remember that every child’s experience with a teacher is unique. If you have had an experience of really liking someone that you weren’t sure about at first, share that example. Langley’s Classroom Visit Day is also an important opportunity for your child to meet his/her teacher prior to the first day of school.
- “School is going to be really hard this year”
As children enter higher grades, worries more commonly center on the difficulty of the workload, including increased amounts of homework. If your child is expressing this worry, one helpful technique is to use cognitive reframing that encourages more of a growth mindset. Introducing statements such as, “It may be harder than last year, but you will be ready for it” as well as using examples from past years when a project or assignment seemed really overwhelming but ended up being manageable can be helpful in shifting rigid thinking.
Middle School Worries
- “All my friends will have changed over the summer”
In middle school, the majority of concerns revolve around friendships and social dynamics. Of course, this is completely developmentally typical. To ease these concerns, encourage your child to begin reaching out to school friends prior to the transition (if they have not been in touch over the summer). Scheduling a few get-togethers can significantly alleviate anxiety and also help adolescents begin to feel excited about the start of school.
2. Slowly Adjust Children’s Schedules
Adjusting children’s (and especially adolescents’!) sleep schedule back to a school schedule can be one of the most difficult tasks. One of the most helpful tips for doing so as effectively as possible is to start a week or two before school begins and to begin the transition gradually. At first, shift children’s bedtime and wake-up time to 30 minutes earlier. Once this is established over the course of a few days, you can add another 30 minutes if needed. For children and adolescents who like to sleep in, try to get them up earlier at least a few days before school starts – this will help in resetting the bedtime naturally.
3. Discuss Screen Time Policies
Summer is often a time of more lenient screen time policies. However, parents often wish to return to more stringent policies or restrictions once school starts. It’s important to have this conversation with your child prior to changing the rules. Given that this conversation can be difficult, and sometimes heated, it can be helpful to approach it in a collaborative way. Even if the policy is non-negotiable, it is important for your child to express his or her concerns and to feel heard. It’s also important for your child to understand your reasons for setting screen time restrictions if you are doing so.
4. Go Shopping for School Accessories
It may sound trivial, but shopping for school accessories (i.e., clothes, backpack, binders) can be a fun way to build some excitement for the new school year while also providing the opportunity to talk about important executive function skills such as planning and organization. For students who struggle with executive functioning, discussing an organization system (i.e., use of planner, folder system) can be extremely helpful in establishing effective study habits.
The transition back to school is both an exciting and stressful time for children and families. Hopefully, the above tips and strategies will help to ease the transition. Although many of these strategies are targeted toward our children, they are certainly also relevant for us as adults. For example, it’s important to encourage positive and flexible thinking in ourselves, especially as our thoughts, feelings, and behavior provide models for our children.
Of course, anxiety manifests in different ways in different children. If your child or adolescent is struggling with significant anxiety about the transition back to school, there are many more specific and differentiated strategies that may be helpful. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you have specific questions or concerns. We all look forward to welcoming back our Langley students and families in just a few short weeks!