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Transitioning Back To School –  How To Support Young Children

After a long summer vacation, the transition back to school can be daunting for both parents and young children. Relatively unstructured summertime must give way to a new grade level, new teachers, and possibly an entirely new school. While some children may find this exciting, many children are afraid of change and fear being separated from their parents and caregivers. This can manifest as temper tantrums in the mornings before school, and tearful protest at school drop-offs. To see their children in such distress is especially painful for parents, and it can be tempting to allow children to stay home when the behavior becomes intense. Fortunately, there are ways in which parents can prepare their children to go back to school with as little anxiety as possible.

In order to more easily transition to the start of school, at the end of summer you can:

  • Reinstate school year bedtimes and routines. During the summer, bedtimes may have been more flexible. Leading up to the school year by preemptively shifting your child’s sleep-wake cycle and introducing a new morning routine will help your child feel well-rested at the start of the year and make school mornings easier.
  • Visit the school. If your child is beginning kindergarten or first grade at a new school, visiting the school for the first time before the year starts can help to familiarize them to the new surroundings without the chaos of the first day of classes.
  • Have friends over. Part of your child’s concern might be anxiety about whom he will sit next to on the bus or eat lunch with. By arranging a playdate with a friend before the start of school, he may feel more comfortable on the first day with a friendly face to look for.

Once the school year begins, your child may still face anxiety about leaving home for a new, intimidating environment. Here are some ways you can help your child manage his emotions:

  • Model calm behavior. Children are very sensitive to their perceptions of their parents’ moods, so allowing your distress to escalate along with theirs will only magnify the situation. This is called “anxiety contagion.” If you maintain a calm demeanor, this can signify to children that going to school isn’t so scary after all.
  • Listen to your child’s concerns. Encourage your child to express in words how he is feeling and what he’s scared of. Rather than just dismissing your child’s emotions, if you listen to his feelings and validate them, you will be better able to soothe your child and he will feel more supported. You will also be able to express your confidence that your child will be able to overcome his fears.
  • Praise good behavior. Be sure to verbally acknowledge when your child is being brave and praise him for it. You may also offer rewards for brave behavior, such as screen time in the evening.

Overall, it is natural for young children to feel a little nervous about starting school. If your child is reluctant to leave you in the morning when you drop him off, it is important to encourage him to go anyway with a loving and quick goodbye. If you allow him to stay home because he is fearful, this will only reinforce the behavior and support his idea that it is safer to stay home.

Though most children will grow out of school year fear, some children’s distress may remain intense. They can have extreme fears about leaving parents, often believing that they will be in danger if separated. This overwhelming fear may lead to somatic complaints, such as stomachaches or headaches. If your child’s fear of leaving you remains intense and interferes with his ability to attend school, he may be suffering from symptoms of clinical separation anxiety. These symptoms are debilitating for children and their parents. However, therapy which is tailored to your child, will help him understand his fears and learn to overcome them. The style of therapy which is recommended for childhood separation anxiety is called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is designed to address the irrational thinking patterns that make your child fearful, and teach him skills to manage his emotions. CBT can also involve teaching families how to support their child and avoid unintentionally reinforcing problematic behavior. If your child’s separation anxiety is severe and persistent, CBT is a valuable way to help him recover and thrive.

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