Back to school. Eyefuls and hearts full of children in new clothing and shiny shoes totting sparkling backpacks that are yet to be dragged, thrown, pulled, and sat on. Images of parents, some relieved for end-of-summer entertainment chores, others sorry for the loss of time together, and many more managing an alternating roller-coaster of both … Children with their own mix of dismay and anticipation: back to homework, also reconnecting with classmates and interesting new things to learn.
Back to school is a bittersweet time for most. A loss of freedom yet a gaining of routine that can often be stabilizing. A time for new beginnings and old worries. Fresh expectations and maybe the memory of disappointments. There are anxieties and stresses about friendships, best-friends, cliques, teachers, lockers, who would sit with whom in the cafeteria, fitting in. Mixed into the tetchy anticipation are all too often often nagging worries about too-difficult studies and possible overwhelm.
This time can be even more potentially stressful for children who have language-learning difficulties and past experiences of failure. For them going back to school might brings up memories of struggle and inadequacy, of confusion and all-too-frequent errors and correction. They may associate school with overwhelm and be anxious about the end of respite that summer offered. At the same time that they may still be excited about reuniting with their friends or meeting a new teacher or trying out the new school supplies in their pristine notebooks; they may also hold worry and distress that, too, needs space alongside the excitement. Mixed feelings may be difficult for these kids to explain, further adding to confusion.
Children rarely have one feeling at a time (most of us don’t, really) and the salad of emotions is frequently shifts and is difficult to tease apart. Especially so for children who have some difficulty with communication, processing, and language. It can help to let them know that it is fine to have all kinds of thoughts, worries, and emotions tumbling through their minds and bodies. Verbalizing the experience helps demystify it and helps give words to what may otherwise feel like undefined unease in the pit of little stomachs and vague distress exploding into weepy bouts and unexpected tantrums.
Back to school time can be tender, and fortunately there is much that you can do to help!
If you had not done so yet, it may be a good time for a brief ‘postmortem’ of the previous school year: What worked and what didn’t? What are they proud of? What were favorites and what was least so? What would they change if they could? What was most helpful? What would have helped? Is there anything or anyone they’d miss? Anyone they worry revisiting?
Time, too, for a heart-to-heart about this school year before it begins in earnest: What are they excited about? Does anything worry them, and if so, what it is? Who are they looking forward to meeting? Who are they not keen on seeing again? Is there anything they are not sure about? Anything about which they feel more confident? And … what do they need? How can you help?
For those for whom narrative is a challenge, it would help if you share your own back-to-school stories: The best year, the worst year, your favorites and least. What gave you joy and what causes you worry. Modeling your own mixed feelings gives permission for the child to have a mix within themselves, and provides a framework for their own descriptions. Add your thoughts and feelings about them and their new beginning: Your excitement for how much they’ve grown and your touch of sadness for the end of summer pleasures; your hopes for a good year and your wishes it would not be too stressful or too difficult.
Do not, however, criticize or bring up ultimatums. Things like “last year you did not try very hard so this year I expect you to do better …” or “you better work hard this year or there’d be no play-dates …” or “I don’t want to hear bad things from your teacher about you like I did last year …”–they wound, not help. Shame strips hope away and erodes confidence. Absolutely vent your frustrations and fears to other adults you are close to but not in the presence of the child who evokes them–you need a soft place to fall but it should not be your child who provides it for you …
No child wants to do badly in school or to misbehave. Using last-years woes (over which the child now has no control anyway) as leverage for this year demands does little to give motivation. Failure will happen–we all misstep, we all make errors, have bad days, act out sometimes, forget, neglect to follow some direction. If the child enters school afraid or disillusioned they may reach conclusions that it is not worth the try if they are already half-way into punishment …
So … be on the child’s side. Encourage. Inspire. Allow a new beginning and fresh hope and confidence. You don’t need to praise failure or ignore hardship, but you can find a way to re-frame difficulties through effort and maturation. “I know that last year was challenging at times but I am so excited to see how much you have matured this summer” and “Let us work together to make this year the best year yet both in school and at home.”
Prepare. School supplies and school clothing are important. So are arranging schedules and anticipating needs and letting the child be part of whatever decisions they can have some input for and control over. Familiarity with routines is important for any child but even more so for the child who may need help with comprehending and following cause-and-effect, sequence, and directions.
How to do it? Talk about the coming schooldays’ schedule. Point out when school starts and ends, how long things take (the school bus, getting home, homework), what other things will need to be accommodated. Discuss the merits of good sleep and healthy nutrition, negotiate (or explain) a clear a time to rise and time to go to bed, time for other tasks as needed. This arranging of routine and timetable can be made fun–life should be looked forward to and manageable–after all, there are so many amazing things to find out and adventures to be had!
To make things more concrete and minimize the need to hold all the details in memory, you can draw a visual schedule together: clocks with crucial times to follow, lists of things to do each morning and after-school, timetables for after-school activities and therapies. This preparation will be further enhanced if you review the school schedule (and any unusual things like holidays and school trips) over weekends so the child knows what’s expected and what to expect.
Make sure you leave time for the child to have unstructured play. Ensure there is some time for boredom, too. In this day and age when life is busier and schooldays long and demands overwhelming, it is difficult to fathom children given time to daydream and get bored. However, these are crucial for imagination, creativity, rest, and assimilation. Children will daydream–might as well make time for it so it does not take place in class or during homework.
Secure some time for reading and snuggles. Schedule it in. It is no less important than homework or baseball or tutoring. YOU reading TO the child, that is. Beyond the pleasure of connection and time together in story adventure, there is ample research showing it as a wonderful best way to increase their language and comprehension, to expose them to worlds beyond their own and deepen their listening. Reading to your child will enrich your connection and provide a time and place for shared relaxation as well as important opportunity for sharing what may otherwise not find a way to bubble up and be spoken of.
Preparing the school staff is helpful, too, if special accommodations or understanding are required. Consider speaking with the school ahead of time (or early in the school year) so that you limit your child needing to stand out as different or wait for accommodations. You’ll also get a sense to who the teachers are and which one may call for more teamwork and coordination than others.
Prepare yourself, as well … Not for the hardship, but for self-care. See that you not forget your own needs for good food, enough sleep, time to breathe, to exercise, to call a friend, to laugh, to cuddle. Stress is no more good for parents than it is for children …
It is a tender and exciting time, this back to school adventure of new beginnings. Even as it may awaken the frayed remnants of old worries, it offers amply opportunity for building confidence and bolstering hope. It is filled with growth and re-connection. May the cooler weather and the changing times herald soft days and brilliant colors, and may it bring on glorious learning ready to unfold.
Happy Back To School to All!