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How to Help Our Children and Ourselves Manage the Back-to-School Transition

Dr. Donna Housman

The start of school brings a lot of changes—new teachers, new schedules and new school challenges. With these changes often come excitement and joy, frequently paired with anxiety, worry and fear.

As parents, we can help our children understand that these seemingly opposing feelings are not unusual and that our children are not alone. We can affirm their own feelings, as well as share our own memories and experiences of returning to school after a summer away. We can tell them that we had butterflies at the start of school but that time with our friends and in class also was joyful and exciting and that the butterfly feeling passed. This sharing of feelings will help our children understand that their feelings are normal and natural and that they too will be okay. If they are crying, we can tell them that we can see by their tears that they are sad and that we understand, but we will return so they don’t need to worry. We can tell them we look forward to learning about all the fun and activities they are going to enjoy with their friends and in the classroom throughout the day.

As parents, we too may be feeling somewhat anxious. A new school year can feel bitter sweet. Separating at drop off can be difficult for parents and children alike. To ensure a successful transition, we as parents need to manage our own feelings, as children have an incredible radar for their parents’ feelings, with a particular radar on anxiety and worry. We need to remind ourselves that children are resilient and that learning to manage transitions and emotions is an important lifelong skill. We need to lead by example. If we’re still struggling ourselves as parents, we can talk to friends, partners or another adult about our own feelings so that when we are dropping off our children, we can show them that we are confident that they are safe and that an exciting new school day awaits.

At Beginnings, our work in promoting these skills begins the very first day. Acquiring social and emotional skills is a process. But our children will and do learn. They learn to transition. They learn to separate. They learn to identify feelings in themselves and in others. They learn to appropriately and constructively express their feelings and to manage them as well.

Still feeling uncertain? Before the current school year began, we received this anecdote from a parent of a child whom we are calling Isabel and her brother whom we will call Ben. What struck this parent was the growth these Beginnings children showed over the course of the year. This parent wrote:

After a long day at school, Isabel was having trouble regulating her emotions. She was tired, and absolutely everything brought her to tears. We rushed her through dinner and a bath and were trying to quickly get her into her jammies so she could get to bed. While we said to her "Isabel, we see that you are tired, let's try to get ready for bed so we can get more energy for tomorrow..." she was just a pool of mush. Our son Ben, just shy of age two, observed what was going on, and approached Isabel. He put his arm on her and "checked in", asking "Isabel, are you ok?" Then, to our surprise, he started leading her in a deep breathing exercise including sweeping arm motions. Not only did he have empathy in that situation, realizing that she needed help, but he had the tools to help her. We were impressed and proud of them both (as Isabel calmed her body and leaned to give Ben a hug).

These first few weeks of school can be fraught with anxiety and uncertainty, as well as excitement. What Isabel and Ben remind us is that we all feel tired and sad at times but we can learn to manage those feelings and help others as well. They also remind us that these feelings pass. Beginning from these first few weeks of school we as teachers and parents can help our children learn to better manage transitions and become more resilient. We can help them identify, constructively express, understand and manage how they feel. We can assure them that they are safe, loved, and okay and we can remind ourselves, that we are too. A win-win for all!

Tags: Social and Emotional Learning, back to school

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