By Bruce Ecker, Ph.D, guest contributor
As the glorious days of summer come to a close, 60 million of our nation’s children prepare themselves to return to school. They are of varying ages, from 3 to 20, and have had many different summer experiences, as some spend their time at home with parents or other relatives, some work, some attend camps, and some travel. Yet, all will make a transition that will affect both their adjustment and their family’s functioning throughout the next year. For many, the transition will be smooth, as children look forward to a successful school year and happily greet friends and classmates. For others, the transition will be rocky, filled with anxiety, pained separation and fears of failure or social embarrassment.
The transition back to school affects not only children but also their families. Family routines will change and many parents re-focus on work as they watch hopefully, but often with anxiety, to see how their children will fare. If children do well, we parents relax and share in the excitement and feelings of success. If the transition is difficult, we worry, with some parents becoming preoccupied and feeling demoralized or angry. Nonetheless, the start of the school year offers parents opportunities both to smooth their children’s immediate adjustment and to help build patterns of coping with transitions that will last a life-time. Parents can help their children with the school year transition through considering the following points:
1. Communicate. The most important tool for easing the back-to-school transition and helping children manage their stress is communication. Keeping an open channel of parent-child communication is key. Children should feel free to talk about their hopes and their disappointments, their successes and failures, their joys and their anxieties, all with the confidence that their parents can handle whatever they hear and will respond without undue anxiety or reproach. Accept whatever your children are feeling and then move on to helping them learn how to cope. Remember also that such communication should not be a one-time event, but rather on ongoing conversation.
2. Anticipate. Communication about the start of the school year should begin before the event itself. Beginning in mid- to late-August, parents should begin the conversation about the beginning of school and its possible stresses by asking their children about what they anticipate in the coming year…academically, socially, and in terms of athletics, dance or other extra-curricular activities. In their own words, parents might ask their children what they hope for and is there anything that they fear? What are they looking forward to and what do they worry about?
3. Age Matters. How we talk with our children and what they hope for and fear differs greatly by their ages. We ask simpler questions and expect to be more active in helping young children cope. We are careful to emphasize strengths and not to be intrusive with our early teens. However, we can be more direct and appreciate the considerable capabilities of our 16 to 18 year olds.
4. Complexity Matters. We must also consider the complexity of our children’s school experience. They face not only academic challenges and accomplishments but also complex social relationships, both with peers, adult teachers and administrators. Our children see ample examples of kindness and caring in school, but also copious amounts of meanness and bullying. They are called on to perform publicly, day in and day out, reading, doing math, taking part in class debates, and in gym class. Our children face a complex cultural landscape as well as they join classmates of different races, ethnicities, and religions, some native born and some immigrant, some homosexual and some heterosexual, all in a nation-wide political context that emphasizes division and recrimination. Parents should take an active role in learning about the many roles and relationships their children are involved in at school and offer to help them navigate any complexities that arise.
5. Normalize, When Appropriate. The beginnings of new experiences are often hard, at school, at work, in relationships, and in community activities. It is normal for children to have fears and it is normal for transitions to be rough. Letting our children know that this is so and that we have faith in their ability to cope is a good foundation for subsequent action.
6. Coping Rather than Protection. Many parents understandably have the desire to solve their children’s problems, to make it all better. However, this does not take full advantage of the opportunity that helping with school transitions offers. It is better to have a conversation with our children about how they can cope, how they can manage the academic challenges and the social strains, than to take care of these issues ourselves. Coaching our children on how to cope will bring benefits that last far longer than solving their problems for them.
7. Coping Tool Box. One way to talk with your child about how he or she can cope is to conceptualize this as a coping toolbox. You can discuss both what tools he or she already has, such as reaching out to an adult, and methods that are new to them, such as using calming thoughts or remembering times when they have been successful.
8. Teachers Are Our Allies. Finally, I encourage parents to remember that teachers care about our children’s well-being nearly as much as we parents do. Reaching out and talking with our children’s teachers’ – letting them know how our children are feeling, listening to the teachers’ perspective, and enlisting their help when appropriate, goes a long way both to solving problems and letting our children know that many people care about them.
Bruce Ecker, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Concentration on Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience at William James College. He is also the father of two wonderful daughters.