It was late August, 1975, and I was sobbing into my pillow. My mother had announced that the following day, we would go shopping for back-to-school clothing and supplies. Those magically unstructured days of swimming, biking, catching frogs, making forts, staying in PJs, and reading in the hammock were about to come to an end. And I just couldn’t deal.
Now, I loved school, at least until fifth grade and puberty arrived. My teachers and classmates gave me the positive mirroring I lacked at home. I actually looked forward to getting on the school bus each morning, once back-to-school had happened and I was settled in my new classroom and had made a bunch of friends to eat and play with at recess. But each year, the transition was anxiety-provoking.
Lest you think this gets easier as kids get older, think again. Moving from eighth grade to high school can be the most stressful back-to-school transition of all. One friend remembers vividly getting a migraine that lasted several days just before going to her first day as a freshman. And another tells me about the terrible fights with her mother as that first day of high school drew closer and closer.
Regardless of our experiences as children, we’re now in a position to help our own kids so their transitions are smoother. Dr. Tyler Droege, Psy.D, a licensed clinical psychologist providing both psychological therapy and assessment services for children and adolescents, has some ideas you can try this year.
Emotion coaching teaches us that when our children are deep in their reptilian brains, anguished with fear, anger, or grief, the healthiest thing we can do is to hold them close and put words on their emotions. Dr. Droege takes this one step further. “Parents are encouraged to have frequent conversations recognizing the multiple emotions that their children may be experiencing about going back-to-school. It is important to normalize these feelings and explain that their feelings are shared by many, if not all, children.” This can certainly include some of our own stories about getting butterflies before that first day in the fall each year.
Provide Tools for Coping
This is an ongoing practice, helping our children learn to express emotions in a healthy way and manage them when the storms get fierce. Dr. Droege encourages parents to brainstorm with their children what helps them calm down. If you come up with a list, you can have practice sessions with your children when they aren’t feeling those difficult emotions, making it more likely that they’ll remember them later on when they are.
Sleep Schedules and Good Sleep Hygiene
At our house during the summer, we love making campfires and roasting marshmallows as we watch the sun set. Since we don’t generally have to wake up early the next morning, it’s not a big deal. But eating sugar before bed, staying up late, and letting go of nighttime routines don’t help when it comes time for transitioning to back-to-school.
Dr. Droege recommends getting back to a fall sleep schedule well before the first day of the new school year. “Sleep for children is vital for their academic success, and has shown to positively correlated with increased attention span, improved memory, and an increased ability to manage their emotional regulation.” Because it takes awhile to get used to going to sleep earlier, or having a bedtime at all, giving it a few weeks’ lead time can make the transition more gradual and therefore easier.
Sleep experts emphasize keeping the routine consistent. Some elements of good sleep hygiene include:
* A warm bath
* Reading out loud, even with older kids
* No electronics in the bedroom
* Stop computer, phone, and all device usage an hour before lights out
* A dark bedroom
* Plenty of exercise during the day
* Drinking lots of water up until three hours prior to lights out
* Eating a small snack with carbs and protein, like cheese with a cracker or a banana with nut butter
Daily Routine with Family Time
Back-to-school inevitably means more activities and more obligations, and structure can help with feeling overwhelmed. “Children with a set structure often do better managing their emotions and cooperating with their parents when they know what is expected,” Dr. Droege explains. “Schedules are often successful if they are visible to the child and reviewed each morning or the evening prior.” You can create a colourful schedule with your children and put it on the fridge or some other place your little ones can see it each day. When your kids wake up and do what they’re already used to doing first thing in the morning, like brushing teeth and getting dressed, go over the schedule with them as part of that routine. Knowing what to expect helps lower anxiety.
In addition, make time each day for the family to spend together. Because of the busyness of fall, many parents forget or skip this important element of family life. What you do is less important than just doing it. Examples include taking a walk, playing games like charades or “Name That Tune” (one of our favorites), or creating a simple art project. “This doesn’t have to be a large chunk of time, but it reinforces the importance of the family unit to the child,” says Dr. Droege.
“In today’s society, we too often fall prey to comparing ourselves, and our children, to others,” says Dr. Droege. “As school starts, there are increased opportunities to compare just about every little detail of life to those around us.” This can include grades, sports, artistic or musical accomplishment, or any other “markers” of “success.” Many families pack their kids’ school-year schedules until they’re nearly bursting, leaving little room for the kind of unstructured playtime that’s essential in a child’s life. Dr. Droege encourages parents to seize the moment and simply hang out with their kids. “They grow up fast, and in the end it won’t matter what sports team they were on or if they got first place at the science fair.”
Sharing and Gratitudes
School, like life, has its positive and negative aspects for kids. Implement a regular time and place when the family shares what each person is grateful for. Dr. Droege says it’s important to help kids focus on the positive parts of their school experience. In our family, just before bedtime, each of us says what we’re grateful for and then we say what was hard. Oftentimes, by the time we finish the gratitude portion, it’s difficult to remember what was hard. But sharing in all forms makes transitions, and life in general, much easier and more meaningful: not just for our kids, but for all of us.