Who doesn’t remember the first day of school; the blend of anticipation and anxiety? For children with older siblings, that first day can be an important and long-anticipated culmination of joining the ranks of the big kids. For those returning, going back to school holds all of the past successes and failures along with uncertainty regarding the year to come. Will my teacher like me? Will there be classmates I don’t know or who are mean? Will the schoolwork be hard?
This is the stuff of transitions, which for our kids – just like for us adults – is fraught with many different feelings. We can help our children dealing with the change of pace and the shift from an easy summer the responsibilities that come with a new school year by anticipating and normalizing these emotions together with them.
With any big changes, good or bad, our brain shifts into alert state and reads the change as potential for danger. The challenge for parents is to help kids acknowledge the anxiety that comes with the unknown. Yes, there will be setbacks and disappointments – it’s an expected part of learning you can prepare your kids for it, capitalizing on the excitement and potential opportunities of the year to come. How can we help our children succeed? By meeting the experience head on with realistic expectations. We can empower our children with tools and skills they need for a productive school experience.
As adults, we have experience in building models for new experiences. We break experiences down to prepare for them. In other words, we create a picture that helps us anticipate what will happen and feel some measure of control. Now, whether we create positive pictures that result in feeling competent to meet the new challenge or whether we first assume we can’t do it is up to us. However, we tend do this automatically and unconsciously. As parents, we are in a position to more consciously choose the path for our children. We can help them construct their approach to new experiences in a way that will serve them well not only on the first day of school, but in many experiences to come.
Understanding what makes your child tick is key
While it is helpful to draw on your own experience to put yourself in your kid’s shoes, it is also important to remember that the particular thing that has your child worried may not be what you expect it to be. To bring it out into the open and address it head on, it’s important to help her talk about what her fears might be.
Rehearsal is one tool that helps us to prepare for novel experiences. Of course, it’s not possible to create a completely accurate representation of that first day in the classroom. But you can practice going to school in the morning. If your child will ride a bike or walk, you can go together several times and see how long it takes, have fun deciding on the right route or have a classmate from the neighborhood come along. If your child will take the bus, go to the bus stop together to stand exactly where boarding in the morning.
For older kids who are already comfortable with these routines, helping younger siblings or neighbor kids can be a way of recognizing and focusing on their self-efficacy and confidence. They can then draw on this positive feeling – their enhanced sense of mastery – and generalize to the less familiar aspects of the coming experience.
Normalizing worry or fear of the unknown can be helpful. Kids find comfort in knowing that others (you or their sibling or friend etc.) have also felt or experienced what they are going through and that perhaps they will be okay. Knowing that some worry or anxiety is “normal” under the circumstances reduces the focus on the negative and helps kids know that others have met the challenges with success – and so can they.
Focusing on the likelihood of success is an option. While everything may not go exactly according to plan (there may indeed be a bully in the class or your child may have difficulty applying glue as expertly as the child sitting in the next seat), putting things in perspective helps. If in general you approach new experiences with the belief that they usually turn out okay and that you believe your child has the skills to handle the unexpected, then your child will sense that. Additionally, it’s helpful to put failure in perspective. If something goes off track, it’s not the end of the world.
Remind your child of past success in mastering new things and past achievements. Talk to them about their fabulous track record that suggests the innate ability to meet future challenges with similar ability.
Helping your child built resiliency is one of the most important gifts you can give as a parent.
ZisBoomBah advisor Beth Lonergan, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist with broad experience in the mental health field. As a psychologist who is balancing both research and practice, Beth is a well-versed expert in human behavior, including how people change and why they don’t – and “what makes people tick,” as she puts it herself.