Starting a new school year can stress out the whole family. With shopping and schedule shifts, new routines and teachers to get accustomed to, even the most easy-going kids and the most well-prepared parents can get jittery.
Of course, being organized and shifting bedtimes back to normal will help. Definitely visit the classroom ahead of time and meet the teacher if that’s an option. Even if those things aren’t possible, or if you’ve already started back to school, there are some simple steps that even the less organized parent can take to get this school year off to a good start.
Acknowledge feelings, your child’s and your own. It’s okay to be sad that summer is over. Take time to be grateful and have conversations about what you loved this summer — special trips, memories, or just the more relaxed schedule you enjoyed. It’s okay to be anxious or feel stressed out about starting a new school year (doubly true for kids who are in a new building.) A little one saying, “My tummy hurts” can mean they have a stomach bug or it can mean, “I need some reassurance that things are going to be okay.” Develop a family habit of naming feelings, good and bad. It can help everyone identify their own feelings and help them care for other family members who are not having a great day.
Communicate. Many parents are reluctant to bother the teacher, but many teachers are eager for more information that might help a particular student. A teacher friend says, “As a teacher, I'd like to give a plug for communicating with school personnel to help with an anxious child's transition. Often I have no idea until the problem has been going on for weeks. It's frustrating because I'm there to help. It's even my job!” She tells this story of a family she already knew: “One boy vomited right in my doorway on the first day of middle school. He seemed totally confident and said he wasn't nervous, but it [turned out to be] a pattern for him.” One parent shared her story of helping her kids communicate with her so she can communicate with school: “I have anxiety and passed it on to both of my kids. Whenever we were in the school, I’d ask for a tour. I’d have them show me every classroom and have them describe the teacher. I’d make a plan with them (in writing to refer back to). We’d discuss their worries and have a person/plan they were comfortable with. I’d email their go-to person so they were prepared.”
Be patient. Model the patience you want to see in your child. Expect, especially in the opening weeks of school, that there will be some meltdowns. Instead of viewing them as bad behavior, try to think of your role as helping someone who is overwhelmed get a handle on their feelings. For a child who is feeling anxious or struggling to keep up academically or socially at school, a tantrum at home is often the release of pent up emotion. The release comes once they are finally in a place and with people where they know they are safe. It’s no fun for you, but it’s even worse for them. As much as possible, let the storm pass and once it’s over, let them know you are there to help. Encourage your kids to be patient with each other. Remind them, “Everyone has bad days. We try to be patient with you when you’re having one too.” As a parent, be patient with yourself as well. Parenting at the transition times of the year is especially demanding. Do the things you need to do to care for yourself so you can be there for your kid.
If the signs of anxiety — moodiness, tantrums, trouble falling asleep, dragging their feet in the mornings, stomach issues (aches, vomiting, diarrhea) persist after a few weeks, reach out to the school or your pediatrician to see if more help might be needed.
One simple exercise to try with your family, especially if you’re getting one word answers to “How was school today?” is high point/low point/closest moment to God. Based on the Ignatian examen prayer, this kid-friendly reflection tool helps even the youngest school goers communicate about their day and find those sacred moments.
It goes like this:
High point: Share the best or one of the best things that happened like, “We had art today and I love art.” Or “I got to sit with my favorite people at lunch.”
Low point: Share something that was hard, sad, or uncomfortable like, “I had an argument with my best friend.” Or “I had to stay in from recess to finish my work.”
Closest moment to God: A time or event when you remembered feeling holy or sacred like, “I helped my friend with her work and felt really good afterward.” Or “The sky was really pretty today on the way to school and I felt grateful that we live in such a beautiful world.”
This is one of those family habits that is so simple it can seem silly at first. It develops language and skills around naming and claiming our spirituality that can have big payoffs as kids get older. Keep it light and let kids pass if they can’t think of anything, especially at the beginning. Parents can go first, keeping your answers simple so kids can imitate. Do it at the dinner table, in the car or on the walk home, or even as a bedtime routine.
More than anything, having a parent who listens can help with school-related worries. Remember, problems that seem small to you as an adult can be overwhelming to the child who doesn’t have the benefit of all your life experiences. Taking the small things seriously now will help later when the problems get bigger. You’re laying the foundation and showing your child that not only will you listen, but you’ll hear them as well.
Nora Bradbury-Haehl is an author, speaker, and a nationally recognized voice in the conversation about young people and the Church. Her book “The Freshman Survival Guide: Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing, and Everything in Between” is an Amazon bestseller. She’s written for Saint Mary’s Press, BustedHalo.com, and Liturgy Training Publications. She’s been in youth and young adult ministry for more than 25 years and is involved in interfaith work in her hometown of Rochester, New York.
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