It’s September and a new school year begins. For some children, the change from unstructured, fun activities to a structured day is an easy one. For other children, the change can be quite difficult.
As the cliché goes, ‘we are all creatures of habit.’ We almost seem to fall naturally into an established routine, and this tendency toward habituation applies to an even greater degree to children.
Given this tendency, it’s not surprising that so many parents and educators I speak with often talk about how transitions are the most difficult times with their children. Because routines help to alleviate our anxiety and provide us with a sense of control and predictability over our lives, both adults and children seem to gravitate toward routines and established patterns.
Although some of us would like the unstructured, often more relaxing, slower-paced summer days to last forever, they have clearly ended. A surprise to parents, many children talk about how eager they are to be going back to school. Early August is usually a good time to begin thinking about the idea of back to school and the concomitant change in routine that going back to school brings. Returning to an usually rigorous, structured day for children and all the potential difficulties that can often accompany these changes could be a short lived routine in itself.
The transition from pool to school, or from the fun-filled unstructured summer days to the often rigorously structured school schedule, is potentially challenging and anxiety-producing for a child, even if the change is a highly anticipated one. Whether your child is entering a new grade, new school, or starting kindergarten, he may be feeling anxious even if he is looking forward to the new experience.
Some children experience what is called anticipatory anxiety. This is anxiety beyond the normal jitters or anxieties about school. The child may develop significant physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches, or complain of vague aches and pains. Some children even experience real panic at the idea of school and develop what is clinically called school phobia. If your child is experiencing more than the usual cluster of symptoms that accompanies anxiety for any new or changing situation you might want to seek professional help or at least discuss your concerns with the school psychologist.
The school psychologist may be able to meet with your child and offer some guidance with regard to seeking outside resources. Barring any unusual problems that may need the help of a professional, there are many things you can do to help ease the transition jitters your child may have.
Most anticipatory anxiety both for children and adults alike is not based on the reality of the upcoming event, but rather on the perception of the event formed in the person’s mind. Literally, the fantasy ‘what-ifs’ are often the source of anxiety, not the event itself, especially for children.
The key to changing a child’s perception and reducing their anxiety of an upcoming event where a child may be experiencing anticipatory anxiety or helping a child adjust to a new routine is to begin the process early! Anxiety is always higher when there are a significant number of unknowns. Make the unknowns known, the unknowns fuel potential anxiety!
The more time a child has time to get used to the idea of change and the more potential exposure he or she has to the event the easier the process of change will be. Although all these ideas or tips are not germane to all children returning to or starting school for the first time, the following have proven to be helpful suggestions for assisting children with the beginning of a new school year:
For children going to school in a new building or for children starting school for the first time, familiarization with the building and schedule of routines can be extremely helpful not only to help alleviate anxiety, but also to avoid potentially problematic situations.
Visit the school and show him the classroom, the nurse’s office, bathrooms, lunchrooms, bus pick-up and drop offs, as well as where you will pick him up should the need arise. Some schools even provide maps of the building for children. If his school doesn’t offer maps, it might be helpful for you to make one for him.
Talk to her about the events at school, always keeping a positive perspective about the new activities, homework, new friends and school activities. As him about his concerns about starting school. Rehearsing possible situations they he thinks might arise (what would you do or say if…?).
Rehearsing ‘what would you do or say if’ is an excellent way to prepare your child for some of the what ifs that come up. Children should also have emergency numbers to immediately reach you. Despite the school having these numbers it is always reassuring for children to carry these with them.
Help her to understand that she isn’t the only child that is anxious. There are other kids that are uneasy during the initial days of a new school year and the teacher will help everyone make a good beginning and feel comfortable.
Shop for supplies and new school clothes early, even though you don’t have the complete list from his teacher. Let him make the choices for lunchbox, backpack and some supplies. This can make shopping, as well as the anticipation of the beginning of school, an exciting time for your child.
It can also help to alleviate anxiety for your child by making him a part of the decision making process. This gives him a sense of control (just a word regarding backpacks, make sure the backpack fits your child). Ask an older sibling or child in the neighborhood to help him negotiate the first few days of a new school, bus, or school building. Having a buddy can take the edge off a new event.
Help her to understand the rules of the bus, school building and classroom teacher. Ask her, “Suppose you got on the wrong bus, what would you do?” Attitude has a lot to do with success. It helps a child to know that you will be there during that first week of school to meet him at the bus or the building after school ends.
If that’s not possible the routine of after school care should be discussed beforehand. For children who are returning to school, a successful transition to school lies not only in the establishment of the school routine or familiarizing your child with daily school day routines but also keeping what’s learned from going unlearned!
A new school year or starting school for the first time is usually more stressful and anxiety producing for parents than it is for children. For most children school and its beginning is a new adventure in learning, making new friends and seeing old ones again. The adventure can be as exciting and enjoyable as those lazy days of summer. My best wishes to all Hudson Valley Parent area readers for a safe and productive new school year for their children.
Does your child have the bus stop blues? Read more about how you can help.
Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.