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Back-to-School Blues

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Illustration of a teen hitting the snooze button
Nathalie Dion

Parents can help their kids who dread the new school year.

Nick, who is about to enter his senior year in high school, hates the prospect of returning to the school routine. He dislikes getting up early after sleeping late all summer long. But what bothers him most is the return to a structured routine that defines how he is expected to learn. Nick’s main concern is an academic one.

Nick’s youngest sister, Bree, is about to enter middle school, and she’s apprehensive about what kind of work will be expected of her in this new environment. So she also has some academic concerns. But Bree’s main worry is that she won’t know many kids and will have to deal with people she doesn’t like. Bree’s concern is mostly a social one.

There are many reasons why children may not be excited about returning to school. Each child’s learning style, academic needs, social and emotional development, and prior school experiences contribute to how he or she views the arrival of another school year. Kids may be concerned about getting a teacher they don’t want. If they’ve struggled in the past, the prospect of another school year filled with struggle may be foremost in their mind.

For kids, transition is often tainted with trepidation, and the transition from summertime to the school routine is no exception. Children adjust to change according to their own temperaments and levels of resiliency. Parents, however, can play a major role in how well kids adjust to change. Following are a few insights that can help you equip your child to face this back-to-school season.

Acknowledge the change

Going back to school is really more than just a one day event. This type of transition is about the forming of a new habit. Brain researchers agree that the forming of a new habit also includes the breaking of an old one. Getting up early after three months of sleeping late requires both the dismantling of the old sleep pattern and the creation of the new pattern. A consistent bedtime and rise time will build more structure back into Nick’s schedule, and this new habit will help him to embrace routine as he anticipates the structured environment of a traditional school day.

Habits are patterns of behavior built on prior experiences. How a child responds to a difficult teacher, a difficult classmate or a difficult learning experience is often a habitual response. If your child has had a challenging or traumatic experience at school, it’s crucial that you acknowledge this issue and help your child separate the past from the present. Help your child understand that hurtful memories need not define her view of current experiences. Just because Bree felt ill-equipped to deal with difficult personalities last year doesn’t mean she can’t learn how to deal with them this year. Stressful classroom situations are opportunities for our children to practice — with our support and supervision — the life skills needed to get along in this world. School is a great place to prepare for life! 

Help with the habits

 Since habits are patterns that create connections and pathways in the brain, those pathways exist even if we stop accessing them. That’s why we sometimes relapse after abstaining from an old habit for a long time. Your child is no different. Here are some suggestions to help your child build new habits for the school year:

Plan for change. Together with your child, identify in writing the habit of behavior or habit of mind that needs adjustment. Then write down some specific steps your child can take, with your support, to move toward a more positive habit of behavior or mind. For example, if Nick needs to create a new habit of getting up early for the school year, what steps can he take that will lead toward that new habit? If Bree is apprehensive about dealing with kids she doesn’t like, what actions or ways of thinking can she adopt to develop a more positive response toward people she has issues with?

Deal with one habit at a time. Even if you and your child have a laundry list of concerns about the new school year, choose to work on only one at a time. Instead of your child saying, “I am going to get up one hour earlier, do my homework as soon as I get home each day and introduce myself to one new person each week,” redirect her to focus on one of those goals: “I am going to get up one hour earlier each morning.” How do you decide which new habit to focus on first? Consider which one is keeping your child from feeling positive about going back to school.

Take small steps. Too large of steps can be difficult to manage. Break down the task necessary for your child to succeed. Instead of him saying, “I will do my homework every day as soon as I come home,” encourage him to say, “I will start my homework within an hour of coming home.” Help your child aim for success.

Repeat the desired behavior. When building a new habit, frequency is key. Help your child understand that the more often he repeats a behavior, the stronger the connections in his brain will become. Encourage your child to stay focused and committed to his new way of thinking or acting.

Your child may be a preschooler who’s anxious about starting school for the very first time, or he may be a high-school senior who already knows that going back to class is not an easy adjustment. Regardless of your child’s age, you can help him through this transition by offering support and creating strategies for success. Addressing your child’s most basic concerns goes a long way in equipping him to face the school year with confidence.

Combat back-to-school worries

Helping your child build resiliency is the best way to combat many of the concerns she may have about school. You may not be able to deal specifically with every circumstance, but you can foster a more resilient attitude in your child:

Maintain a daily routine. Children crave structure and feel safer with routine. A home that has less structure may cause anxiety for children as they struggle with the more rigid environment at school. Routine at home can also foster more positive and effective homework habits.

Teach your child self-care. Kids don’t inherently know how to add balance to their lives, so a parent modeling self-care is essential. Look for opportunities to model balance in recreation, responsibilities and personal pursuits.

Nurture a positive self-view. Sometimes it’s hard to recall and focus on previous successes when we are struggling with a sense of failure. Remind your child of previous times in her life when she made good decisions, when she handled a difficult situation or person with grace or when she mastered something difficult. Help her learn to laugh at herself, reminding her that a positive attitude helps create a positive home and school environment.

Vicki Caruana is an educator and the best-selling author of Giving Your Child the Excellence Edge and Standing Up for Your Child Without Stepping on Toes.

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