School is rapidly approaching, and I know that as a parent I have anxieties about the transition from the carefree routine of summer into the more rigid structures of the school year. My kids are 5, 2.5, and 1. I am less worried about my 2.5 and 1-year-old but I must admit, I have some anxieties about my 5-year-old. He is going into kindergarten this year and this is a big transition for us. He does well when he has control of his day, and kindergarten is going to be a rude awaking when he finds out he has to follow someone else’s routine. I also see this happen every August with other families at my practice. To be honest, August through October is the busy seasons for me because I get more referrals during this transitional period. Let’s talk a little about why kids struggle and what you can do about it.
Kids struggle with transitions for a lot of reasons. For kids with ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, sensory processing disorder, dyslexia, or other learning differences, transitioning can be even more difficult. Kids can feel nervous about starting school again, especially if school is challenging for them. Some kids may be anxious about socializing again. Kids who have learning differences may not feel as comfortable at school. They may worry their needs won’t be met by their teachers. My middle son had a speech delay. As his mom, I am practiced and skilled at interpreting and anticipating his needs. But the teachers at school were not as good at this, so it caused some anxiety. In general, kids are not great at expressing their needs and teachers have so many children at once, that unfortunately needs can get overlooked sometimes. That’s nothing against teachers, they are mostly very empathetic and doing their best. It is just hard when you have anywhere from 15-30 kids in a room. So, all we can do is set our kids up for success as best we can by controlling what we can and trusting the rest.
Here are 8 tips to set you up for success!
What to do:
1. Establish your school bedtime routines a week early – About a week or two before school, it helps everyone to adjust their sleep routines to a time frame that sets your kids up for success. Many families push bedtime to as late as 9pm. The sun doesn’t even go to sleep till then. I know my 5-year-old tells me every night, “but mom! The sun isn’t even asleep yet!” However, falling asleep after 9 and waking up around 6 is not enough sleep for developing minds. Developmentally, appropriate bedtime for kids ages 3-12 is between 7-8 pm. So the week before school starts, move bedtime back in incremental times. On Monday put your child to bed at 8:45 instead of 9. Then the next day, make it 8:30 and so forth until you reach 8 pm. You can also do 30-minute increments if you need to get your child to bed at a more reasonable time faster.
2. Use structured Doll play the night before – This is a cool technique I learned in graduate school. It is a way to set your child’s expectations through play. Put simply, you pick out different toy figures that represent real people. Maybe mom is a gentle elephant, the teacher is a playful monkey, and your child is a penguin. Use those characters to tell the story of going to school. When creating your story, stick to events you know will definitely happen, like going to lunch or the playground. Make sure there is a beginning, middle, and end. Be sure to keep the story light and happy. End it with something like, “And then mom came to pick up the baby penguin and they hugged and shared all about their day and went home.” (Pro-tip – stay away from saying phrases like, “I missed you so much” as this can make the child feel like they are supposed to be sad when you leave, especially if they already are an anxious kiddo. Instead say, “I am so happy to see you!” Stay tuned for a post on structured doll play!
3. Set up a playdate with friends from school – This will help your kiddo focus on the positive and fun things about going back to school like getting to see all their friends. It also helps to decrease anxiety because your child likely hasn’t spent a lot of time with his or her friends for a while. By setting up a play date, they can re-establish bonds before they walk into their new classroom for the first time. This gives them someone to look for as they enter a new environment, decreasing their anxiety by shifting their focus slightly. (Pro-tip: set up a play date with kids in their class this year, not just their best friend from last year. They may not be in the same class again.)
4. Have your child help prep their school bag – Engage your child in prepping their bag. This allows your child to pack things that could be helpful like a picture or a favorite snack or a small lovie. Other transitional items could include a small stress ball, a small pop-it, a note from parents…
5. Go over common rules and expectations – As parents and adults, we forget this because sometimes it seems so obvious to us. But we have to remember that our kids are still relatively new at well, everything. If you think about it, they have only had 2 or 3 first days of school depending on the age of your child. If you have a 4th grader, that is really only 5 first days of school. It’s beneficial to remind them of the expectations you have of them and their behavior. Keep it light and non-threatening. Engage your child in a conversation. Start it with something like, “You have school tomorrow, what are ways you think you can enjoy school and be most successful?” As you guys talk, guide the conversation toward common school rules like raising your hand to talk, asking to go to the bathroom, or general following directions. This is also a good time to remind your kids of safe touch and boundaries and what to do if they feel uncomfortable.
6. Anticipate your child having a hard time – this one is for the parents. If you expect there to be some challenges, you will be in a much better state mentally and more prepared to help your child through it. So really what I am trying to say is, expect some challenges AND that your kid will rise to those challenges. They just may need some support along the way. In the same vane of advice for parents, call in extra help. If you have multiple children and multiple schools, ask for your spouse or grandparents to help with drop-off. Just until everyone gets adjusted to their routines
7. Go to the school meet-ups – this one is similar to having a play date. It’s a way of “breaking the ice.” Going to the meet-ups allows for kids to re-establish those old bonds and tame their “what-ifs”. For example, “what if no one likes me this year?” By going to those get-togethers before school even starts, kids have the opportunity to get to know each other again in a safe and probably more familiar place. Often when kids change grades, they have a new environment as well like a new classroom or maybe even a new building or school altogether. Set them up for success by letting them get used to one thing at a time. Re-establish friends first, that way then they go to their first day of school they only have to worry about learning the environment, not learning the environment as well as making friends.
8. Be available after school – that first week of school, make yourself more available to your kiddo. If you can be home when they are home, you can help your kiddo decompress. Ask open-ended questions like, “What was something you liked today?” and “What was something you didn’t like?” Stay away from, “how was your day?” The only response you will get is “fine.” Think of questions that are specific, yet open-ended.
Heading back to school can be challenging! Many kids experience emotional disregulation in the first few weeks of school. While many adjust to the new routines after a few weeks, some can experience great distress. If you are unsure if your child needs help, read this blog or give us a call! We can help determine if therapy would be appropriate.