What Children Experience Going Back to School

Four ways parents can support children as they return to the classroom

Posted Aug 10, 2015

When starting school, children carry in their mind’s eye many images gathered from family members, peers and media about ‘big kid school.’ It’s a mixed- but full- bag of anticipated adventure and/or worry, depending on whether the child’s temperament is flexible, fearful or feisty. Usually there is a mix of excitement and pride that they have reached this threshold, along with a dose of worry about whether they will be welcomed or liked, maybe have no friends, or have little chance of being a teacher’s favorite. They are equally likely to be full of confidence and see ‘back to school/starting school’ as a hill they are ready to climb.

All the delights and warts of their previous group learning experience(s) are on also their minds; the joy of learning and adventure of curiosity, looking for new or old friends (depending on how it went before), a better or just-as-good-as teacher, and maybe a new place in the social pecking order- could be better/worse this time around. So, according to that temperament, they could be excited, cautious, mellow or most likely, reveal over time a mix of all three. Whatever it is, grownups can do a lot to help support their children in the back to school process;

1. Parents can lend support via keeping the topic open for discussion, not merely delivering a sermon about being prepared, or being over vigilant for anxiety. Point out the “Back to School” ads, posters and pop-ups as a sign that the whole community loves this time of year. Everyone is doing it because it is important, and it feels good to be ready. Then, ask them what they are thinking about school and listen carefully to the answer. Show them you are listening by repeating back what they told you, and asking if you got it right. We all love being heard.

2. Keep your own baggage about last year to yourself. Children are a lot better at ‘fresh starts’ than most grown-ups, given half a chance.

3. Host or organize some social, play date or entertainment event with other class and schoolmates a week or two prior to school’s opening. The less formal the better, and if it can include a trip to, or drive-by of, the school, it will help prime the communication pump if your child isn’t saying much. His or her mates can be great sounding boards.

4. Calm down your own schedule around the time of school opening to be available (especially during decompression time). Connecting with the teacher should be a high priority item during this period; kids feel keenly the presence – and absence – of this teaming up with the teacher on their behalf.

School should be as much about the work of mastery as it is about growth, neither one of which comes particularly easily. So telling kids ‘You’ll be fine’ doesn’t help them as much to hear as it does us to say it. Try “I’m so happy and proud you are grown up enough for school and getting yourself ready to go.” Enjoy!

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (www.goddardschool.com).