The new clothes are laid out, the perfect backpack and color-coordinated notebooks have been purchased, bedtimes have been adjusted to reflect that the long, languid evenings of summer are over for yet another year. ¶ But no matter how much you plan, there’s no way to avoid one aspect of that first day of school ritual: the jitters.
Sure, some kids are all gung-ho to head back, see old friends, learn new facts, meet new teachers. But for most kids (and let’s face it, parents) the first day of school means at least a few butterflies. This to-be-expected nervousness is likely to get exacerbated at three key transition times for your kids: entering kindergarten or first grade, entering middle school and entering high school.
I spoke with Diane Peters Mayer, a Pennsylvania psychotherapist and author of the new book “Overcoming School Anxiety: How to Help Your Child Deal With Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries.” (A title like that makes me appreciate not being a kid these days!) What follows are her tips for easing the transition regardless of the age or stage of your child.
“This is your child’s first step in his academic career. He’ll be leaving the safety of home, dealing with new rules, new adults, new classmates,” Mayer points out. So it’s natural for a child to be nervous.
Don’t dismiss the child’s worry. “You should never say to a child who expresses a concern, ‘That’s silly; you’ll be fine.’ ” Your child is sharing his feelings with you, and you need to honor those feelings.
Help the child find solutions. If, for example, your child is worried that the teacher won’t like her or that she won’t make new friends, you can assure her that that’s unlikely to happen and then add, “So what do you think you could do to make sure you get along with the teacher?” Mayer says that this age is the perfect time for kids to start learning the coping skills they’ll use throughout their lives.
Stay calm.As parents, we’re terrified about sending our children into the cold, cruel world of education, away from the loving home. But don’t let your child see you sweat. On the other hand, Mayer warns, don’t be too much of a cheerleader, because that can put added stress on your child. “Don’t say, ‘You’re going to love school; I loved school,’ ” Mayer advises, because if the child turns out not to love school, he might have a harder time sharing that with you for fear of disappointing you.
Keep things the same at home. Many kindergartners will wonder what their parents are doing while they are at school. So Mayer advises to say to your child, “While you’re at school, Mommy is going to go to the grocery store.” That way, the child will be able to think about that if she gets anxious during the day. Also, a note in the lunchbox reminds a child that Mom and Dad are still thinking about her even if they’re not physically present.
This might be the hardest transition your child will ever make, even harder than going off to college. Kids are leaving a familiar and smaller elementary school, going to a big school where they will be changing classes, meeting more people. It’s important to note that it’s middle school — not high school — where bullying reaches its peak.
It’s also a hard transition because tween kids might be reluctant to share their fears and concerns with their parents. But understand this: They’re terrified about getting from class to class on time without getting lost. And they’ve probably lost sleep worrying that they won’t be able to open their lockers.
Talk: Mayer says that communication is critically important at this stage, but it’s up to parents not to blow it by making too big a deal of it. “You don’t want to call a child and sit them down and say, ‘We’re going to have a serious conversation about middle school.’ You can’t do it in a heavy-fisted way,” Mayer warns. Instead, find casual moments to bring it up, perhaps while the child is unpacking the dishwasher or when you’re in the car going to soccer practice.
Find a mentor. If there’s an older child in your neighborhood who is at the same middle school, see if you can get them together so that your child can talk to someone on his level about concerns. A kid might open up to a peer more than to a parent.
Engage in some retail therapy. Going out shopping with your child for new clothes or school gear might provide another opportunity for a “spontaneous” conversation, and most kids will like the attention, Mayer says.
Don’t wait too long. The pressure is on in middle school. Understand that it might take your child a few weeks to adjust, but if that’s clearly not happening, you need to intervene by talking to teachers and counselors. “If your child falls behind in middle school, it’s easy for it to become the perfect storm” of academic and social frustration, Mayer advises.
Believe in your child. Middle-schoolers can be hugely challenging for parents, but try very hard not to yell or demean your child, no matter how much eye-rolling they are doing. “Sometimes all a child needs is to be told, ‘I know you can do this,’ ” Mayer says.
Many parents think, incorrectly, this is the biggest transition for students. But it’s parents who face the big transition here. Once your child enters high school, if you have done your job correctly, they are working toward separating from you. And you, dear parent, need to let them do that gracefully, because “once your child goes off to college, you really don’t have much of a say,” Mayer warns.
Prepare for adulthood: “Good high schools really help students become young adults,” Mayer says. This happens through clubs and sports where older students mentor the younger ones or through your child finding a teacher or counselor with whom they can connect.
Take a step back. “A child needs to know that Mom and Dad are there for them, but a parent shouldn’t be telling a high school student to do their homework. They should be monitoring, but monitoring from a distance,” Mayer warns. “If you are writing your child’s college applications, what makes you think the child will succeed once he gets to that college?”
Don’t add to the pressure: “Kids are anxious; they are balancing sports, AP classes. Some of these kids are working more hours than a CEO,” Mayer says. On top of that, they are expected at 15 or 16 to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. “If a parent says to a child, ‘It’s okay for you not to know what you want to do just yet,’ it can give the child permission to explore things they may be interested in,” she says.
Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.