It’s that time of year again . . .
Stay-at-home parents are popping corks and putting their feet up as the obligatory first-day-of-school photos upload to their Facebook profiles; working parents are singing along with Pharell Williams as they drive to work (“because I’m happyyyy …”) … ok, maybe that’s a mild exaggeration. But some of us ran out of good ideas for kid-friendly parent-tolerable things to do before the end of June. Even if you’re a summer-loving master cruise director who actually ENJOYS pushing your child on the swing for 45 minutes a day, it’s nice to be able to complete a task without being interrupted (ever get to the beach before you realize you only shaved one leg?).
We hope that our children are as overjoyed to get back to business as we are, but they’re usually not. After months of loose schedules, playing outdoors, and spending extra time with family, going back to school can be a difficult adjustment. Even more so for younger kids, or kids starting a new school. But there are things we can do to make it easier and less stressful for kids and parents alike.
Establish Regular Routines
The more repetitive and consistent, the better. Establish an early bedtime and stick to it, despite the temptation to let it all hang out on the weekends. Use printables to help kids get themselves ready in the morning, and cut down on the nagging. Prepare for the day the night before – let kids pick out their outfit for the next day, pack lunches the night before. Get everybody up early enough to relax and eat breakfast, rather than running out the door with a pop tart and a bad attitude.
A consistent after-school routine can be helpful as well. Most kids are starving and worn out by the time they get home, so follow a routine that allows them to unwind and unload, in that order. We should give them a chance to have a snack, a drink, and some time to themselves before we start grilling them about their day.
The Goodbye Routine
With younger children in particular, the goodbye routine is a biggie. Especially if we want to avoid them creating their own goodbye routine, which usually involves crying and clinging to our legs for dear life. I ask my daughter how many kisses and how many hugs she wants when we say goodbye, and if she’s particularly clingy that morning I also ask her to wave goodbye to me from a window. I tell her I love her, remind her to have fun, and that I will see her at pick up time – I know it seems odd telling her the specific pick up time when she can’t tell time yet, but it’s more reassuring than “See you soon!”.
Back to School Anxieties
As much as we’d love our kids to happily trot off to school with nary a backward glance, it would be weird if they didn’t miss us at least a little. Unfortunately many kids miss their parents so much, going to school is really difficult for them. Other causes for kids to feel anxious going to school can be if they have a new teacher they haven’t connected with yet, don’t know or feel comfortable with the kids in their class, or feel overwhelmed being in a new place with new rules to adjust to. All of these things are to be expected; however, it’s important to determine if your child’s anxiety is the result of a more serious external cause like bullying, or if your child is exhibiting symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and would benefit from additional help or intervention.
As always, when we practice what we preach our kids catch on fast, so we should also be mindful of and manage our own anxieties – the kids aren’t the only ones going through this transition. When my daughter started “school” – daycare, really – I used to cry every day in the car after I dropped her off. But I kept a smile on my face until I was safely in the car and out of sight. I reminded myself every day of all the reasons why this was a good decision, like a mantra, and I took time to vent with other grownups who could relate. Kids are ultra sensitive to our emotional states, so if we want them to feel secure and relaxed, we need to cultivate those feelings in ourselves.
One way to cope with these anxieties is to talk about them, try to determine what the specific worry is and then find a way to manage it. Another helpful strategy could be meeting up with another child before school, either to travel with or just meet upon arrival. Some kids will complain of stomach aches when they have morning nervousness before school; letting them stay home is more likely to make the problem worse.
At breakfast or in the car on the way to school I try to get my daughter talking about her friends and teacher, about what she might do that day at school – have snack time, take a rest, go for a walk, read a book etc. Sometimes I talk about the kind of day I want to have, then ask her what kind of day she wants to have. Yes, this can elicit less than positive responses, but even then it seems to get her mind in the right place.
Throughout the Day Comfort
While we can’t be there with our children during the school day, and checking in or showing up is more likely to be disruptive and upsetting than helpful, there are ways we can provide comfort between drop-off and pick-up. Taping a family photo in their lunchbox or slipping it in their backpack for rest time is one example. Or make them a special fabric heart that they can keep in a pocket to hold onto at scary or sad moments during the day; I’ve also seen small worry stones with phrases carved into them, like “You are loved”, that might also serve as a sort of talisman to ward off anxiety throughout the day.
Letting Off Steam
Talking is always a good way to let kids get anything that’s bothering them off their tiny chests, and maybe work through the things that bothered them that day or that they are nervous about in the future. But while we should definitely encourage them to talk, we need to give them a moment to relax before we start interrogating them after school. A good after school routine that gives them a little space can allow them to process their day before dinnertime or bedtime presents an opportunity for sharing it. I’ve found in my daughter’s case that at bedtime she just starts relating the day’s events and dramas without any help from me, all I have to do is listen. As well as listening, we can always help them along by eliciting with specific questions. Rather than “How was your day?” we can ask things like “What was your favorite part of today?” or “Who did you sit next to at circle time today?”
Give it some time
Change is hard for all of us, kids and adults alike, and adjusting to it doesn’t happen overnight. Playdates with classmates outside of school can help develop a more comforting class environment. Getting to know a new teacher, and talking about that teacher in familiar terms with our children can also help them feel more secure in the classroom. Above all, our patience and positivity will go miles toward our kids settling into a happy school year. So let’s dig our heels in and brave the beginning storms of nerves and grumps, they too shall pass.