Facilitating a Smooth Transition Back-to-School
I’m gonna hold onto this couch and never let go!
– E. Miller, Age 6
It’s the morning after our summer vacation at the lake. E awoke and said he had had a nightmare. “My school became a haunted village. A ghost dragged me around the grounds. And all of my school friends were at my house playing with my favorite toys.” Though there were still a few weeks until the start of school, he was anticipating, not only the beginning but also the end of his freedom. And he worries about the unknown, faceless teacher who will rule over his days to come. Starting back to school can be an exciting time but as with any transition, it can also be fraught with worry, fear, and a sense of loss as the freedoms of summer disappear. How can you best support your children as they go through this annual rite of passage?
Say goodbye to summer.
Summer days are so sweet and fleeting. Perhaps you spend precious family time laughing and enjoying one another in ways that may not occur as often during the hustle of the school year. As a family, find a way to say goodbye to summer. It could be as simple as an ice cream sundae indulgence or a campfire in the backyard. Pitch a tent or simply throw your beach blankets on the grass and stargaze. My husband proposed sharing a slideshow of seasonal photos with the grandparents. While you are savoring those last summer moments, take a moment to reflect on some of your happiest times over the last few months. When did you laugh the most? What were your favorite moments on your travels or local adventures? What animals or plants did you encounter? What activities do you want to repeat next summer? If your school year has already begun, the extended Labor Day weekend offers a natural opportunity to create a way to have one final appreciation of summer.
Create rituals for the ending and beginning.
After finding a way to reflect and enjoy summer’s end together, how will you anticipate all that is positive about starting the school year? In addition to new tools including the fresh smell of a new box of crayons and razor-sharp Ticonderoga twos, there are friends with whom to reconnect or perhaps new friends to be made. Haul out a few projects from last year and display them once again to remind your child of the success she has already experienced in school. Make a ritual out of getting school supplies by buying them together and then enjoying a special meal together or engaging in your child’s favorite activity as a family.
Create or recreate your routine.
Part of the annual preparations in our house for the school year is the creation of the morning routine poster. This doesn’t need to occur before school begins but in those first few weeks starting back, it’s an ideal time to go over it so that the opportunities and challenges are fresh in the minds of all family members. Going over your morning routine can offer great comfort to a child who has not gotten up at the crack of dawn or needed to get dressed and move quickly for months. Don’t expect that they will snap back into the routine easily. Pave the way by discussing how your morning will progress together. Find out what your children’s expectations and hopes are. Writing down your child’s routine formalizes it and helps provide a reminder to return to if there are struggles in those early days of school. For more on simple ways to plan for better mornings with kids, check out the video short, “A Smooth Morning Routine”.
Does your child walk to school? Do they take the bus? Offer a practice dry run opportunity to add a feeling of comfort and safety before the first day. Get up at school time. Get dressed and follow your route to school whether it’s walking or driving. If your children take the bus, go to their bus stop and then drive the route to school. Talk about where they might want to sit and how they could introduce themselves to other kids and the bus driver. When you arrive at the empty schoolyard, walk around and show your child where they will line up or meet their teacher. Then go to your favorite coffee shop or donut house and get a morning snack to add a sense of celebration. Though this practice may seem like an extra step, it will pay off when you witness your child entering the school year with more confidence.
Involve children in preparations.
Work on a calendar for your child’s room and place all of the major events in the school year on it including friends’ birthdays and days off. Engage your child in placing their name in notebooks, on pencil holders and other school tools. Prepare your child’s homework space. Talk about what tools they might need at home and get them organized and ready. Perhaps work together on making a pencil holder (using a well rinsed frozen juice can, paper, glue, stickers, and markers) or decorating book covers. Create a binder for papers sent home. Parents often fall into the flurry of preparations and may just check items off the list. Think about how you can involve your child knowing that this will pave the way for them in thinking about the tools and organization they need in order to be successful this school year.
Return to a school night bedtime.
Although summer nights can allow for late movie nights or catching fireflies, children will require a full night’s rest in order to function well as school begins. If they are not in the habit of a regular bedtime, it can become a power struggle and that challenge can widdle away at precious rest time. Certainly, a sleep-deprived child will not be able to function as well with the big first meetings – teachers and friends – and new expectations in those first days. Take a week prior to the first day and chat about your bedtime routine. What business needs to be accomplished (getting on pajamas, brushing teeth)? What enjoyable, connecting opportunities do we have too (reading books together, snuggling, saying prayers, etc.)? Try out your newly designed routine and get children to bed closer and closer to their regular school night time (practice like it’s a game and see if you can beat your own time) to help their body rhythms adjust along with their expectations. Learn how many hours of sleep your child’s body and brain require by age here.
Show that you are open and willing to listen during this time of transition. Children will be more likely to share their worries. Perhaps begin a conversation with him about his experience with his last teacher and how he got to know her and like her. Ask questions about rich memories from last school year and offer the space for your child to tell you about his school experiences. If worries emerge in conversation, you, in turn, can address those through practice, involvement, and reflection.
Show additional sensitivity.
Children will have heightened emotions during this transition from summer to the first months of the school year. They are adjusting to major changes in their life including new faces and new expectations. Be aware that greater upset about minor issues may indicate anxiety just below the surface. If children are unable to identify or articulate their feelings, offer feeling words and ask if they are accurate: “It sounds like you are worried. Are you worried about having a new teacher or being in a new building?”
Because worries may run at a fever pitch this time of year, tell stories of persistence from your child’s past. Find ways to show your confidence in your child’s ability to meet any challenge by digging in and working hard. Emphasize hard work as a family value, one that all members are engaged in with their work and schooling. Reinforce ways to introduce yourself and make new friends offering additional confidence when social anxiety strikes. Also, clue your child into becoming more socially aware. Discuss the fact that others around your child – peers and teachers alike – will show signs of nervousness too. When your child gets worried, coach her to invest her energy in empathizing with others and making others comfortable by enjoying the moment and she may just forget her worries altogether.
Introduce yourself or make brief contact with your child’s teacher.
These first few weeks of school offer an important opportunity for connection with your child’s teacher. Beginning that relationship as soon as possible in a positive way will contribute to further communications and ultimately, your child’s success in the classroom so it’s worth the effort. Stick around during drop off or pick up. Extend a handshake, a smile, and wishes for a great year ahead. These first interactions will pave the way for future partnership. For more on ways to initiate a partnership with your child’s teachers as a parent, check out “The Most Important Relationship To Build This School Year.”
Taking steps to prepare your children by creating rituals and celebrations, through initiating organization and reflection, and by showing of empathy for their situation and the accompanying mix of emotions can all contribute to a sense of safety and security in the midst of change. Not only will it help create smooth transitions during each day for your family, but it will also allow your children to enter the school year with an open mind and heart to experience the joy and possibility of learning.
Updated from original, published on 8-7-14.