School Adjustment

Summer's over, it's the beginning of October, and our children are in school. Most parents have breathed a sigh of relief, and are looking towards holiday preparations. Everyone is settled into the new routine. Or are they?

"I don't understand what's wrong with my son. He's absolutely bouncing off the walls when he gets home from school. I didn't see this behavior over the summer."

"My daughter's teacher told me she hit someone in school. She's never hit anyone in her life!"

"My son is so morose and unpleasant. What's going on?"

Within 2-4 weeks after the beginning of school, most parents expect that their children will have settled into the new routine. Thus, when confronted with unusual, boisterous, aggressive, or withdrawn behavior on the part of their children, parents are bewildered. For most children, however, 2 - 4 weeks is not enough time to successfully complete this transition. Most children need 6 - 8 weeks of transition time before they will settle down.

Invariably, when I tell this to parents of children kindergarten age and older I'm met with a response of "You've got to be kidding! My child's been in school since she was two years old. She knows what school is about. She shouldn't need this much of a transition." Yet time and again, I speak with parents whose elementary, jr. high and even high school children are having some sort of transition issues. Obviously, the age of your child will determine how transition difficulties are manifested in their behavior.

For children in preschool, kindergarten and first grade, transition difficulties may come out in aggressive, disruptive, or rude behavior. This age group may seem overly excited, or overly energized, almost as if they are bursting at the seams. It's not uncommon to hear "you can't make me," and "I hate you" pop up for kinder and first grade children as they begin to feel their new-found independence. During these years, they may also seem more sensitive during the first 8 weeks of school - crying at "nothing", pouting, or expressing anger for no apparent reason.

By second grade, and through fifth grade, the transition difficulties make take a slightly different form. Children in this age group have generally more impulse control than before, so some of the aggressive and disruptive behaviors may drop off. Some rudeness may still occur, and certainly this is the group of children who probably "bounce off the walls" when they come home after being contained in school all day. This group may also be unusually sensitive, but their feelings are more easily expressed in words, so you may hear "I hate my teacher" but not be able to discover a specific reason for this feeling.

In jr. high and high school, transition to school is often accompanied by mood swings, sullen or withdrawn behavior and sometimes rudeness. During these years, when hormones and bodies are changing, transitions can be especially challenging for child and parent alike. Remember that your children are undergoing a drastic transformation of self, attempting to answer the question "Who Am I?" for the first time, and to fit in with their social situation as well.

So, how can we help our children ease into school more comfortably? In general, it's beneficial for children of all ages to have parents who are enthusiastic about school, who seek to engage their children about their daily activities and who maintain a consistent home environment so that the new routines at school are balanced by the old routines at home. Here are some specific tips for making these eight weeks easier:

* When your child comes home from school, greet her enthusiastically. Let her know you're glad to see her.

* Ask your child specific questions about his day. "Was there a time you felt happy today?" "Who did you sit next to at lunch?" "Did you have any special responsibilities today - like line leader or roll taker?" "How is your new History teacher? Is he as strict as you heard he would be?" These specific questions are infinitely preferable to the general "How was your day?" which overwhelms children of all ages and renders them temporarily mute and uncommunicative.

* If your child seems uncommunicative, give her space. Sometimes certain children need an opportunity to re-group before engaging in conversation. For some, this may mean having the conversation at the end of the day, before bedtime, when children are generally more responsive to our queries.

* If you have a pre-teen or teen who is having a particularly difficult time, or is exceptionally difficult to engage, don't hesitate to write him a note. Rather than asking questions, identify feelings and provide encouragement. Open the lines of communication for him to come to you on his terms, if he chooses. You might write something like "I've noticed that you seem unhappy. Sometimes starting school again can be tough. If you'd like to talk about it, I'd be happy to listen. I even promise that I won't talk - I'll just let you do the talking." If your child decides to come to you, keep your promise - just listen and refrain from offering advice unless you're specifically asked.

* If your child's behavior is unmanageable, identify her feelings, but then don't hesitate to set appropriate limits using the same discipline skills you've used in the past. You might say "I see you're all wound up (or angry, or quiet) today. I wonder if maybe it has to do with getting used to school?" Wait for your child's answer, listen and engage her in communication. If the behavior continues, set a limit, and use a logically related consequence to encourage your child to express his feelings in more appropriate ways. You might say something like "You have a choice. You can talk to me about your feelings instead of jumping on the sofa, or you can stay in your room until you calm down enough to behave appropriately. You decide." It's helpful for children who are in transition to recognize that the rules of the house remain the same. This gives them a sense of containment, and of safety.

Finally, remember to keep an empathetic attitude, and to lower your expectations. Eight weeks for transition is not uncommon, and your child needs an understanding parent in order to accomplish that transition in the smoothest way possible.