Kicking Off the School Year in a Positive Light
The beginning of a new school year can be overwhelming for all parties involved, the students, the parents, and the teaching staff. As parents we try to do our level best to help our kids kick off the school year in a positive way, but this isn’t always easy or obvious how to go about it. To help us all wade through this multi-tiered issue, Licensed Family Therapist Vinay Gaglani graciously answers some of Anouck’s questions on how to start the new school year off with a positive and supportive mindset.
Back to School Jitters
A: Back to school is a hectic time of year. As a kid I used to get nervous at the start of each new year and even as an adult, I find that I STILL get back to school jitters– now I can say it is on behalf of my daughter. Should I be masking my nervousness, or is it better to be open about my own apprehension regarding the start of the new year?
V: As we prepare for the new school year, it isn’t just our children who may experience a feeling of apprehension. As parents, we may well mirror those feelings ourselves, perhaps because the last school year was challenging; or our child is transitioning between elementary and middle, or middle and high schools. Perhaps we are transported back to our own experiences of returning to school, that may or may not have been the most positive.
To the extent that we can convey a calm, positive and open attitude about returning to school, our children can take comfort in our calm. They can set their worries in our hands, and benefit from the understanding that if we are not concerned, and that if we have confidence our kids will be okay, perhaps they can trust that too. Yet, given the circumstances I’ve described above, a calm attitude may feel forced, or fake, for some of us. How do we show up for our children to be supportive yet authentic when this is the case? Connecting with a partner, close friend or other trusted peer, and sharing those worries, expressing those fears and gaining empathy, validation, support and ideas to lessen those worries can give us the space to work through what holds us back from showing calm and feeling calm. If connecting to someone seems daunting, journaling is another great way to make sense of our worries, shed our emotional load and create space for solutions. If such resources feel inaccessible, or are not effective for lessening the worry, some brief work with a therapist may help attain true positivity and calm.
On Teaching Resilience
A: In what ways, as parents, can we better prep our children for their new year? There are a lot of unknowns with the new school year and many are our beyond our control to influence. How do we help them with resilience?
V: As summer draws to a close, and school supply lists and classroom lists are released, we can help our children prepare for the school year by involving them in the process. As much as possible, children can help with back to school shopping, both to select backpacks and planners, and to join in the silliness of purchasing twenty-five glue sticks and seventy-two sharpened number 2 pencils. I like to invite my boys’ creativity and imagination in the process: “Twenty five glue sticks??? What in the world will you all be making that would take twenty-five glue sticks?? A 10 foot tall cardboard giant?? A cotton ball dinosaur the size of a car?? Any ideas?”
Another huge gift (though I can practically guarantee your children won’t see it that way), is to begin re-regulating the kiddos’ bedtime routine little by little while still on summer break. This lessens the huge shift from summer bedtime hours to school bedtime hours which can be such a shock to our children’s systems. Teens especially tend to underestimate their need for a regular sleep schedule. Without our guidance, they begin the process too late in the summer and therefore don’t give themselves enough time to adjust. Shifting the bedtime by just 5-10 minutes every few days beginning at the start of August (or late July for those who go back to school in mid-August) allows the body plenty of time to adjust.
In addition to shifting bedtimes, there are other things parents can do to help prep their kids for their new school year. For younger children, talking positively about their new teacher invites the child to consider what they want to share about their summer adventures, and can help build a sense of familiarity even before first official contact. Perhaps print a photo of the new teacher from the school website and put it on the fridge. This again, increases familiarity as the teacher is brought into conversation: “Oh that was such a fun zoo visit. What do you think Ms. Walker’s favorite animal at the zoo is? What can you tell her was your favorite part of the visit?” Your child may want to draw a picture of themselves, or create a kid fact sheet with fun facts such as their favorite animal, color and food, to share with their teacher on the first day.
Older children and teens (especially those who are a little more closed off in the feeling sharing department) can be encouraged to explore their own feelings of transition through the following exercise, which can be done as a guided visualization or a written exercise. Say to your child:
“Imagine you are standing on a platform at a station, waiting for a train to take you from the last school year to this school year. You are carrying with you a suitcase, in which you have packed, as well as your books and supplies, some skills, experiences, memories, friendships and other ‘intangibles.’ But, like with any suitcase, space is limited, so you cannot take everything from last year with you…
- What intangibles from last year do you plan to bring along into this year?
- Which are you happy to leave behind?
- What kind of fresh and new experiences would you like to have this year?
Whether or not your son or daughter chooses to share their answers, simply going through the exercise can help them experience choice and self-empowerment. They can decide how much of last year’s experience need influence this coming year, and how much they leave in the past.
Finally, creating and beginning connection routines at the end of the summer, to be continued into the school year, can be a very welcome respite from the pressures of the school day, especially for children changing schools or those who typically have difficulty with transition, or with various aspects of the school experience. Some examples are family dinners a few times per week; a walk after dinner either together with the family, or one parent and one child, for some invaluable one-on-one time; or a regular family game night.
As much as we would love a smooth re-entry into school for our kiddos, inevitably problems may crop up and need resolution in order for children to feel ready for school. Asking open ended, yet structured questions about school readiness to younger children can reveal some anxieties while encouraging voicing positives. Some examples (this is a simplified version of the aforementioned exercise for teens):
- “Three things you’re looking forward to about returning to school…go!”
- “Three things you’re absolutely not looking forward to this year?”
- “Three ways this year can be different from the last?”
A: Do you have any specific advise for parents of children who have behavioral challenges like anxiety or who aren’t so confident socially?
V: Those younger children for whom emotional regulation, or social isolation are particular challenges, would benefit from a small, portable laminated cheat sheet featuring ‘Kelso’s Wheel’ to offer an extra layer of confidence:
For older children and teens, a virtual toolkit for problem-solving eases the anxiety caused by helplessness in the face of a potential problem, and can involve a step-by-step list:
Step 1: What is the specific problem? Do I have all the information I need to fully understand the problem?
Step 2: What are my immediate ideas for solving the problem?
Step 3: Which option has the best chance for working?
Step 4: Who can help me decide among options if I am not sure?
Step 5: What am I choosing as a solution, and do I have the resources needed? If not, how can I access them?
Beginning the school year with the understanding that our children can bring their problems to us, and in doing so, we will help guide the process of resolving them as much as desired by the child or needed by the situation, sets the tone for children to acknowledge that problems will likely crop up, and do not need to be dealt with alone, unless the child feels confident they can do so. Regularly checking in to ask about what is going well, and what problems our child may need help solving, as well as those they’ve already solved themselves, helps our kids see that problem-solving is simply a normal part of the school experience, and not a situation that has occurred out of any sense of lack.
New Buddies, New Classes
A: If your child has no close friends or allies in their new class, how can we help them find some security in their new classroom? How can we help them make friends?
V: The new school year brings with it new classrooms, teachers and classmates. We can help our younger kiddos refresh their memories by going into the school before the official first day. Requesting a visit can familiarize our kids to the location of the new classroom, its nearest restroom, and where the lunchroom and gym are in relative proximity. Being able to tour the classroom and meet the teacher ahead of time are great ways to soften the experience during the bustle of the first official day.
Initiating a playdate at the park with a small group of classmates, or inviting a new classmate home to play can also begin creating bonds of friendship before the first day, and give our kiddos a familiar face to look for in the sea of newness that first day.
Another very low-risk activity for children with challenges in the social sphere is role-playing. Your child can select a stuffed animal or doll to represent themselves, and pick one for you (who will be playing the role of the new friend). Modeling basic introduction skills, such as asking to join in a game, or inviting a friend to play within this context can build both skills and confidence as the child is then able to visualize the interaction and replicate it at school. Testing these skills out with known peers in the family or neighborhood will further increase confidence and solidify these skills.
Role-playing can also be used to explore your child’s thoughts about their new teacher. Switching roles so that the child is the teacher while you, as parent, are the child, will infuse the child with a sense of power, the use of which could give further insight into any fears they harbor about their new teacher.
Looking at Our Own School Prep Traditions
A: Is there anything that you do personally with your boys to help ground them for the new school year that you would pass on to us?
V: My sons are entering Kindergarten (deep breath) and fourth grade (yet another deep breath). When possible I love to take the final week of summer vacation off, to give the kids an opportunity to relax at home rather than attend summer camps, and do both preparatory and fun activities with them as we say goodbye to summer for another year. Usually, that involves a day trip somewhere fun, like the beach, or the local theme park, where we can reconnect as a family. Ideally, I will also set apart one full day, or at least several uninterrupted hours, one-on-one with each of my boys, doing a fun activity, creating space for snuggling and connection, laughter, playfulness, and openness for any questions that need asking, and worries that need sharing.
Helping my sons adjust to school also means limited or no screen-time during the week, at least until a reasonable homework and reading routine is established. And it means early bedtimes, a regular daily rhythm after school to incorporate homework and, most importantly, to experience lots of connection, play activities and have outdoor time while the weather allows.
Preparing with my sons for school (because honestly, I need as much prep as they do, it seems), also means getting my routine down so I am dressed, fed and ready, before they wake up on school mornings. This way, I can welcome them and good-humoredly usher them through their morning routine, leaving time for extra snuggles and impromptu silliness. Which makes it all worth while!
A: On behalf of parents everywhere, THANK YOU VINAY!!
Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and tea!