For kids (and parents) back to school time is often filled with anxiety. For those who suffer from an anxiety disorder this time of year can be especially stressful. Questions like, who will be in my class? Who will my teacher be? Will I like my new school? What if it is really hard? What if no one likes me? What if people are mean to me or make fun of me? The questions go on and on, and unfortunately there are no answers until school actually starts, and even then there are some unknowns.
This year, my son is starting kindergarten. And I am terrified. I am scared about all the questions above and so many more. So to help us all get ready for the start of the year, here are a few tips for a successful transition into a new school year.
Don’t make it the main focus.
While it’s natural for kids and parents to be excited, and for going back to school to be a huge topic of conversation, sometimes this can unintentionally backfire. When we make something a big deal, kids get scared that they are going to disappoint us or that they are supposed to be equally as excited (or as nervous) about it too. Instead, focus on normal activities and making the most of the rest of the summer. Of course if they bring it up follow their lead and have a conversation. Ask them how they are feeling using open-ended questions like, “How are you feeling about school starting?” Skip the questions like, “Aren’t you excited for school to start?” or “Are you nervous about this year?”
Transition their clock
Generally, school starts earlier than camp, which means everyone needs to get up earlier. Surprising kids by making them go to bed earlier and wake up earlier right before school starts, makes for cranky kids (and parents). A week before school starts, back their bedtime up about 10 minutes every 2 days until you reach an earlier bedtime. Keep in mind how much sleep your kid needs to be at their best (Learn more about how much sleep they need here).
I’ve got one kid who needs a little time in the morning before she gets her day started and another who is ready to go the minute he wakes up. I need to take into consideration how much time they need in the morning to determine what time they should go to bed. This transition might also mean an earlier dinnertime so take that into consideration when looking at your schedule. Kids (and adults) who have anxiety thrive on structured time. While this may seem like a lot of work it can save a lot of anxious energy down the road.
Get into the routine
Most parents know that kids don’t do well with time. They need reminders about how much time remains for an activity and what comes next. You can help guide them by creating a routine for the evening and morning using visual cues and verbal reminders. Download this visual cue chart to help your kids remember what they need to do throughout the day. When giving verbal cues make sure to give 3 warnings before a transition, and try to keep the time correct (like 2 minutes shouldn’t be 10) so that they can begin to understand how long intervals of times are.
Read books about starting school
So we all know reading is beneficial to kids, but it is also a pressure free way to bring up topics that might be hard to broach as well as a way to normalize their feelings. Don’t force them to talk after the book is done, you aren’t reading it to start a conversation, you are reading it to plant a seed and open a door, so that later on if they want to talk they know they can. Here are a couple or great lists of books to read about the start of a new year.
Don’t say it’s going to be ok, teach your kids problem solving skills.
Often times our kids tell us they are worried, or scared about something and we say things like, “it’s going to be ok” or “don’t worry, people will like you.” Most of us have done this. I know I certainly have. I’ve done it because I know that it’s true, but the point is that our kids don’t, and they are really worried about it. So next time your kid tells you they are worried that they aren’t going to have friends, teach them how to make one. Teach them how to ask someone to sit with them at lunch or play with them at recess. Teach them how to look for another kid that may be feeling the same way by paying attention to what their interests are and what they like to do when there is free time at school. Teaching kids to cope with their anxiety isn’t about telling them things will be ok, it’s about teaching them how to make things ok.
Test it out.
Kids with anxiety like to know what’s coming, so help them by driving them by their school, even if they have been there before. Show them where they are going to be dropped off and picked up. If they are going to be taking the bus walk them to the bus stop so they know where it is and how long it takes to get there. Go out of your way to drive by the school a few other times as well. You don’t need to point it out every time you drive by, but it is important that they become more comfortable with the outside of the school.
Get your own worries under control.
When we, as parents, are worried about something we tend to give off a certain energy that our already anxious kids pick up on. So if you are worried about your kids’ transition to school make sure you use all your self care techniques to manage your own emotions. Remember it is totally normal to feel worried about the transition. I’ve already confessed that I am terrified. I know he will be fine and I know I’m not the only parent worried about what this school year will look like. If you’ve read this far, remember you are never alone in your feelings, and if you need help or want to chat we are always here.