School Days, School Days, Dear Old Golden Rule Days...
For most children going back to school almost always involves a certain amount of anxiety. As adults, the transition from summertime to school time seems relatively easy. After all, the date for the beginning of school has probably been part of our planning for the summer...we had to keep it in mind to plan vacations, many of us made alternate child care arrangements for the summer and now must release others from that responsibility. For children, however, the summer days flow endlessly one into the other and summertime is eternal. Thus, as school approaches in the Fall, it is important that we, as parents, provide an opportunity for our children to make the transition with as little stress and anxiety as possible.
Clearly, some of the rituals in which we engage prior to school beginning are extremely helpful. Taking our child to shop for new school clothes and supplies, for example, will enable her to mentally make the leap from the lazy days of summer to the more structured days of Fall. Equally important, however, is our attitude about school, our communication with her about the upcoming transition, our perceptiveness with regard to her feelings about school, and our ability to give her a measure of control when she's feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
Our attitude is crucial.
As parents, we remain the ultimate influence on our children's attitudes, beliefs, values and self-esteem. For our children to succeed, not only in school, but in all areas of their lives, we must project a positive, encouraging attitude. If you had a poor experience in school, for example, it is important not to let your experience serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy for your child. While you may not have enjoyed school, there's no reason why your child shouldn't. Set your child up for success by conveying to him that school can be pleasurable, and express confidence that he can meet any challenges that might arise. When children feel their parents are confident about them, they're more likely to have confidence in themselves. Likewise, don't joke about the rigors of education. Children don't get the subtle jokes inherent in sarcasm. For example, if you say to your child in a teasing tone of voice: "Soon school will be here and it'll be time to buckle down. No more lazing around for you!", you will send the strong message that school is something to be anxious about, that it means work to the exclusion of play, that it is something to be "gotten through" until next summer when things will be easier. While an adult would laugh and probably respond with another joke, children take things at face value. This is no joke to a child. As adults, we must find ways to be good role models for our children. If this means suppressing our real feelings about school in order to encourage our children to do well, then that is part of our parental responsibilities.
Communication is the key.
In order for potentially stressful transitions to be accomplished successfully, it is important to open the lines of communication so that our children feel free to talk about their concerns. This is easier said than done. Many of us unwittingly block communication while acting with good intentions. We want our children to feel comfortable with the idea of going to school, so we offer advice, make suggestions, distract them with the "good" things about school, and so on...all with the intent of comforting them. In reality, however, these "techniques" only serve to communicate to our children that we don't understand how they feel, and that perhaps they should keep their anxiety to themselves instead of talking about it. Here are some communications blocks to watch out for: Commanding ("Stop worrying about it, you'll only make it worse."), Advice giving ("Why don't you call your friends, then you'll feel better."), Distracting ("Come on, let's go to the movies, it'll take your mind off it."), Moralizing ("Well you know, school is good for you, and sometimes we have to do things we don't necessarily like to be better human beings."), Sarcasm ("Nobody ever died from being nervous, you know."), Being a know-it-all ("School may seem tough now, but you'll be thankful one day that you went. Accumulating knowledge is the key to success in this world, take it from me. My grandfather didn't have the opportunities that you and I have, and I remember him saying to me...blah, blah, blah.") If you can stop yourself from reacting with one of these, you're well on your way to opening up communication with your child. Even if you don't catch yourself using one of these you can often tell if you've blocked communication by watching your child's face. If her eyes roll up in her head and the words "Oh, Mom (Dad), you just don't get it" come out of her mouth, chances are that you've blocked communication in some way. When we refrain from responding with a communication block, we free ourselves to actively listen to our child's concerns, and we free our child to air her anxiety, and thus alleviate it.
Being perceptive means, first and foremost, listening to your child with your eyes as well as your ears. Very often anxiety and stress are more likely to show on a child's face and in his body language than in the words he uses. When we watch our children for signs of stress, (is she more irritable, does he cry more easily, is she withdrawn, does he "blow up" at the least little thing), our perceptiveness can often be the key to unlocking the stress. Saying "You seem a little irritable, would you like to talk about it" can often be the line that opens the floodgates for the child's anxieties about school. As your child begins to talk, remember to simply listen. Restate what you hear, and watch and reflect his emotions. You can alleviate much of the child's anxiety by giving him the freedom to talk about it. You probably won't need to do any more than just listen ... all your child needs to feel better is to feel heard and understood.
Give a measure of control.
It's important to remember that going back to school is like going back to work after a long and enjoyable vacation. Suddenly you no longer designate what time to get up, what to wear, what your schedule will be during the day, how you will spend your time. For a child this lack of control can be very anxiety provoking. By allowing your child to make some decisions about his time and how to use it, however, you give him a reasonable amount of control, which will lessen his anxiety. Do this by structuring choices for your child: He may have to be at school by 8:40, but maybe he can choose whether to get up at 7:15 or 7:30. Maybe she needs a 1/2 hour after school to do homework, but perhaps she can choose whether to do it before or after dinner. We do our children a great service when we recognize that within the boundaries that life (and likewise, school) imposes there are still choices available to us. By offering these choices to our children, we give them enough power so that they feel in control.
Structure your child's transition to school for success.
1. Keep a good attitude yourself.
2. Keep the lines of communication open,
3. Be perceptive.
4. Give your child a reasonable amount of control.
With these four principles in mind, your child will not only have a less anxious beginning, but a more successful school year as well.