How to Make Back-to-School Transitions
Less Traumatic for the Entire Family
By Elizabeth Morley Principal Emerita, Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.
Summer’s end approaches steadily whether we are delighted or hesitant to see the calendar edge toward school days and fall schedules, lunch boxes and transitions. Adjusting to or back to school has impact on every family with school-age children, and there is almost always a range of deep feelings including excitement, fear of the unknown, loss of the treasured slower pace of summer, or joy to see students head back to the classroom at last.
While January 1st is one New Year, we mark another new year as schools re-open in September each year, and the start of a new school year carries with it more potential for uncertain anticipation and ready-or-not jitters. Back to school stresses, while normal and expected, can be addressed by parents and children together and here are some things to consider as Labour Day approaches:
Understanding your child
• Listen to your child’s feelings and thoughts about school’s start. Begin to gather in your child’s expressions of emotions so that as school draws closer, you can be prepared for conversations that support the school transition.
• If children express fears before school starts, remind them that they can draw on skills they have and the many people who care about them (e.g., who can help, how they can ask, what happened last time they tried something new etc.).
• Encourage a growth mindset (e.g., “you might not be able to do everything the first time, but that’s okay because you’ll get better each time you try”). Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University points out that, whatever your child’s capacities, a growth mindset, contributes to the child’s sense of continuous improvement in learning situations. Based on the belief that one’s basic qualities are things one can cultivate through personal efforts, growth mindset, as opposed to fixed, helps everyone to see that the skills they have today are just the starting point for development and problem solving.
• Adopt an open and accepting stance in responding to your child. Know that your child brings unique skills and experiences to situations that are new but may need encouragement and honest reminders of past successes to recognize these strengths. Some may have had negative experiences that are obstacles to optimism for the September transition. Be realistic about these as well, being specific about how you will help and decide together which strategies are best.
Some specific things to do before school begins
• Do whatever is allowed/possible regarding familiarizing your child with the facilities, the key adults, and the peers in your child’s class to increase comfort with the situation.
• Let your child make important choices among appropriate options like: what to wear, backpack/lunchbox, school supplies, etc. to help your child have a sense of control.
• Encourage your child to think ahead about what to share with the teacher and/or peers to start the conversation and build the relationship (e.g., a funny story from the summer, a photo of a favorite activity, pet, etc.). For children in Early Years classrooms, drawing a picture or making something simple for the teacher also gives your child a point of connection in terms of entering the classroom.
• Avoid repeated reminders of expected behaviors, drilling of academic facts, etc. It might seem that you’d be helping your child be prepared, but it generally adds stress or worry about not being/doing well enough.
• Plan for extra time for your child’s pace, rather than constant rushing, which adds to stress. You might begin the school-year bedtime and wake up schedules before Labour Day, but you will know best how your family adjusts to time changes.
During the initial days/weeks of school
• Include surprise notes, photos, etc. to be found during the day to let your child know they’re remembered at home.
• Show confidence in your child’s ability to manage even challenging situations.
• Plan for extra hugs, snuggle time, chatting time, and whatever is best for calming your child, both before school, after school and during the bedtime routine.
• Attend all early year school events to familiarize you with the teacher and the school. Send a quick email of thanks and connection to the teacher. Early in the year, offer your time as a volunteer if you can, even if it not possible on a regular basis.
• Avoid setting unrealistic schedules of extra-curricular events. Keep in mind that playtimes, family time and downtime have substantial contributions to make to your child’s growth and development.
If your child’s back-to-school transition is especially difficult
• Remember that you, a parent, are a powerful advocate and welcome voice if your child is not finding that he or she is making robust connections at school. See yourself as part of the team that includes the school administration and teachers, your child, and any others who know and understand your child’s needs. Let your child know the team is there to help.
• Consider professional resources. A strong set of materials for stress in Early Years and Elementary children and their parents is our Kids Have Stress Too! Program. It is a sound, research-based resource for parents to help their child identify, understand and manage their stress. The program’s tips and strategies and various ideas for parents and children are notably accessible and successful.
•Tell the school everything you know about your child that might make the school transition easier. Trusting the school with your family circumstances is a bridge to enhanced communication.