Back to school. Three words that bring about new pencils, new folders, new schedules and a whole lot of feelings.
In my office, most children and adolescents say that they are both nervous and excited about back to school, or even happy and sad. Did you know that you can feel more than one way at a time, about the exact same thing? You probably did, but lots of kids don’t, and when they express a negative emotion, it can sometimes get inadvertently dismissed and the positive feeling gets highlighted and almost reinforced.
“I don’t want to go to school.”
“You’ll love school!”
“I’m worried that the teacher won’t like me."
“Your teacher is going to love you!”
Extremely well intentioned, but these responses miss an opportunity to validate and support your child and to highlight the fact that you are both on the same team.
Instead of trying to convince them out of their feelings, first, acknowledge what they are saying. “You’re feeling nervous about going back to school.” Then, get a little curious and explore what’s driving those feelings about back to school. So, instead of “don’t worry about it, it will be great!” Try leaning into the worries: “Tell me more.”
Children are concrete, literal thinkers. So, if you were to mention that it’s raining cats and dogs, your younger child might look up to the sky and think - this is it! I’m finally getting a puppy.
Going to school for the first time can feel like a really big, almost abstract concept. It helps them to know what the school looks like, what the playground looks like, what their teacher’s name is - the more concrete, the better. The more kids are prepared and know what to expect, the easier it will be. This is part of the reason that it can be so helpful to prepare kids in advance for the new school year. Most schools offer a meet & greet, or welcome day, and it’s a great idea to participate in those. If your school has a playground, be sure to check that out too. On those first few days of school, be sure to review the plan with your child so they know what to expect.
When you’re talking about school, help your child be curious to highlight their excitement, instead of telling them they should feel excited. Questions like: “I wonder if any kids in your class have a little sister like you do? I wonder if you’ll get to learn about animals? Do you think your new teacher likes pizza? What do you think their favorite book is?”
Older kids know the deal. They know what school is like, they may also know how difficult school is for them. So, again, don’t try to convince them that they love school, or that “it’s a brand new exciting year!” It might be something as simple as “I know, you wish summer was longer. I kinda wish that too.” You could also share that you remember that there were some hard things about school last year, and that you’ll work together to figure it out.
If it all possible, try to get them back into a routine. For younger children, you can do a trial run one morning where you get ready for school and then drive to the playground. For older children and adolescents, having them wake up earlier in the days leading up to school can be helpful, but we should be realistic here, this may not go as planned and many teenagers will sleep in even later than normal during their “last day of freedom”.
For a lot of parents, a new school year can be very anxiety provoking. Will there be the same problems as last year? Will they be able to make friends? Will I keep getting phone calls about their behavior? Those worries can be very obvious to kids, and that sends a message that there is something not right about school. So, instead of asking “did you make friends?” or “did you get in trouble?” Trying asking more neutral questions, such as “What was the best part of your day?” or “What was the hardest part of your day?” to take some of the pressure off.
For younger children, reading books about school in the days leading up to the first day of school can be a helpful strategy. Here are some worth checking out.
Cheers to back to school and all the new pencils, new folders, new schedules, lots of opportunities for growth and a whole lot of feelings!
Thanks for reading -