Returning to school for many children, youth and families is an exciting time filled with mixed emotions. Whilst a new school year offers opportunities to build new relationships and provide new experiences, it also can mean uncertainty and anxiety about how things will unfold.
The best thing you can do to prepare for September is to get ready to embrace the return to school with hope and optimism, while being prepared to face challenges and solve problems together as you journey throughout the year. The following are some tips to help support your child’s transition back to school, no matter the age.
- Re-establish Routines.
Getting back into a routine is a common challenge as students head back to school at every stage. Take the time to reset sleep and waking schedules as well as mealtimes. Establishing consistent routines is ideal for all family members, where possible. Flexibility is also important with older youth, especially if they are working part time as well.
Talk about other ground rules you want to have in place as a family to support work/life/school balance and good physical and mental health. For example, discuss and establish habits around chores, eating, screen time, homework, family time and when friends visit. This will help set expectations and avoid conflicts. Where you can, co-create the expectations so that your child feels included and respected. Create visual charts of morning routines to help younger children.
- Have conversations about school.
One of the most powerful ways you can support your child through the process of returning to school is to talk about it, and trying to understand how they are feeling about it. Find the right time to ask them questions to get a sense of what’s on their mind, including any concerns. Listen to what they are experiencing and give them space to talk.
Spend more time trying to understand your child’s point of view by asking questions instead of falling into the trap of only giving advice. For many children and youth, the more opportunities they have to be heard, the more likely they will feel comfortable to open up and talk.
Here are some examples of conversation starters:
“Who are you looking forward to connecting with this year?”
“What is one thing you are hoping to do this school year?
“How are you feeling about this school year? What is one thing you are excited about?”
“Is there anything you’re a bit worried about? How can I help?
- Validate Emotions
Validate your child’s experience by letting them know whatever they are feeling is ok and reassure them by letting them know you are going to get through this together. Normalize fears as a response to the uncertainty of the new school year and let them know that their feelings are common. Ask your child how you can work together to make this a positive school year. Make a list of things that they are looking forward to, and things they enjoy about school.
“I understand you might feel nervous/sad/uncomfortable about going back to school because… How can I help?”
Sometimes, hearing their concerns and validating their feelings without necessarily being able to solve the problem is how we show support. Not all stress can be avoided, but we can learn to reduce it. We can build our child’s resilience by being in their corner, seeing them and understanding what they are going through. Worry and courage can exist together. From there, you can start problem solving together by focusing on what is in your control to change.
- Prepare and Plan
Becoming familiar with the physical surroundings of the school and the staff is another way to prepare your child for transition. If this is a new school, and new teacher, particularly if your child is anxious, see if you can arrange a visit before the first day.
Walking together to the school, visiting the school’s website, and reviewing materials from the school are other ways to prepare. Make a list of questions that you or your child may have about the school or the classroom.
Reassure your child that there will be people at the school to help them, and that you will also be there to help them navigate anything that comes along. Build your child’s confidence in the school environment by showing you have a relationship with the school.
Be prepared for the school day the night to reduce the morning stress. For example; can you pack lunches the night before? Have your child pick out their clothes? Get the backpacks packed and waiting by the door?
Ensure your child has what they need for school and communicate directly with the teacher to find out what the expectations are for supplies and materials. Include your child where possible in picking out things they need for school so that their preferences can be part of the process.
Consider ways that you will communicate as a family about important and upcoming events, such as having a family calendar. Give family members age-appropriate tasks to help prepare and plan for the school day and week. Create visual schedules for younger children to help them keep track of daily tasks such as brushing teeth and getting dressed.
- Communicate with the school
A strong home and school relationship is an essential element of your child’s success. Establish this early in the school year by introducing yourself to the teacher and Administrator at the school, and ask to meet any other key staff. Particularly if your child is managing challenges around learning, social skills and/or mental health, it is critical to have the lines of communication open with the school and to feel that you are part of the team.
You are the expert of your child and your input and expertise is essential to your child’s well-being. Staying connected with the school gives you an opportunity to work together and ensure that your child feels heard and reassured.
Have confidence in yourself as a parent and advocate for your child. Bring someone with you to help support you in school meetings. Reach out to other members of your child’s care team if you are encountering challenges in the school environment that you aren’t sure how to navigate.
- Pay attention to Stress Behaviours.
Consider that the transition back to school is a stressful time, and that most communication is through behaviour. Pay attention to your child’s behaviour and be alert to warning signs that may indicate they are struggling beyond what you expect for them when encountering and coping with new things.
Anxiety and stress show up in different ways for different people. If you see that your child is having difficulty with eating, sleeping, is more anxious, irritable, is having stomach aches or headaches, or is having outbursts, it may be that they need some extra help. While it is important to give time for the transition and expect that some anxiety is common, if the distress is not lessening this may be an indicator that something more needs to be done. Consider speaking with your family Dr., the school, and seeking counselling support if you or your child is struggling.
- Model and Reinforce Healthy Coping.
Taking good care of ourselves is also part of how we support our children and youth. Ensure that you are taking care of your own needs (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) so that you can best manage parenting stress and life balance. Modelling healthy coping and stress management, as well as demonstrating self-compassion are some of the ways we teach our children about self-care.
Directly teaching coping skills to your child can also help your child with transitions, especially if your child is prone to feeling anxious. For example, take time to teach your child deep belly breathing or “four square” breathing which will help them learn to self-soothe in moments of stress. Teach grounding activities to help them connect with their physical bodies when they are feeling disregulated. Teach assertiveness skills so that your child knows how to stand up for themselves with peers. For more resources, check out School Mental Health Ontario website- information for parents https://smho-smso.ca/
Normalize that learning skills to cope with strong emotions and thoughts and having healthy minds are something that all human beings benefit from. If the school is teaching self-regulation skills in the classroom, reinforce the skills at home as well.
Returning to school is an exciting time that also brings mixed emotions for students and their families. As a parent, being prepared to support your child(ren)is the biggest gift that you can give them as they transition back to school this year.
Christine Bibby, BSW,MSW,RSW
Social Worker, Brant Mental Health Solutions