Easing Back to School Worry

Back to school season often comes with lots of jitters and excitement. Parents, especially those of us who have been juggling the hectic summer camp schedule Tetris game, are more than a little relieved to know that a more regular routine is on the horizon. As much fun as the summer is in eastern Virginia, by the time mid-August rolls around, I know I am usually ready to shove those school supplies into backpacks and wave goodbye to that big yellow bus.

Whether you will be crying on the first day, jumping for joy, or maybe a healthy mix of both, let’s talk about some ways we can help our families settle into this seasonal transition. Your instinct might be to minimize any new school year nerves your child is expressing in an effort to help them feel better. While this approach is full of good intentions, it can sometimes backfire by sending the message that we aren’t listening or noticing the intensity of little feelings. The most effective way for a smooth transition is to normalize those jitters and nerves and offer a nonjudgmental ear. Let’s break down some ways to do exactly that!

First, try connecting and observing, rather than correcting. If your child is displaying some unusual behaviors such as testing limits, arguing, or simply being extra. . . extra, take a step back before you “over-correct” and ask yourself what this is really about. Depending on the age of your child, they might not have the language or clear emotional awareness to communicate that they are nervous about all the “new” that comes with the new school year. The best solution is to simply talk about it. Something like, “I remember always being nervous about what to expect on the first day of school, do you ever feel like that?” We are all nervous or anxious to some degree when we go into an unfamiliar environment. The new friends, teacher, desks, lunch room, hallway, etc. will all need getting used to. It’s normal and expected to be nervous about something you’ve never done before.

Second, find a way to have a trial run of the first day routine. Take advantage of the back to school/meet the teacher events at your child’s school. Make a point to really point out where in the building the classroom is and walk it together just like they will on the first day. Make sure to notice where they will sit, and even see if they want to sit down at their desk to really get the full experience of what it will be like. Getting to rehearse the process will make it much easier on that first day morning. This also gives you a chance to help them visualize it and practice a coping strategy in the actual environment. For example, remembering what the classroom looked like and where their desk was on “back to school” night and have them practice taking deep breaths while picturing being in the classroom.

Finally, try to model a coping strategy and practice it together. For younger kids, send them with some sort of comfort object for a pocket or to wear. A cool shell you found on vacation this year or a worry stone is a nice, small, age-appropriate object you can prompt them to hold whenever they miss home/family/etc. When we are feeling overwhelmed, we tend to breathe more shallowly. This is why deep breaths are the most effective way to calm down our central nervous system and let our body know that we are safe. Explain this fact to your children and help them understand breathing doesn’t solve our problems, but gets our brain ready to do its best work. Practicing deep breathing, like four-count breathing, while holding their comfort object will give them a tool to rely on when they are on their own on the big day. It is also a nice inconspicuous way to manage big feelings that is appropriate for any age (adults included!). 

Above all, be kind to yourself. You are doing a great job and your child is so lucky to have you in their corner! Happy New School Year!