by: Brenda Brooks, MA, LPCC
We know that many families are starting to experience back to school stressors and want to ensure that their child(ren)’s mental wellness will be successfully on track for the start of a new school year. We hope that a child’s skills are maintained over summer. We understand that for some children, practicing skills continues in the summer with increased structured peer engagement activities. Others have not had much peer interaction, yet we hope that reinforcing skills with families and the school will generate a smooth transition. There are many factors that contribute to a child’s success when transitioning back to their school routine:
We need to understand that a caregiver’s stress can also contribute to a child’s stress. It is essential that we support caregivers as families prepare for the transition back to school.
Accept the fact that things are likely to be uncertain. COVID-19 is minimizing but continues to be unpredictable. School changes such as new start times, new /staff, or school renovations will affect attitudes and routines. This means we need to have flexible thinking and hold a willingness to tolerate the uncertainty.
Acknowledge your feelings. As back to school stress increases, so can someone’s anxiety. This could be due to a number of factors, such as needing to buy school materials, new clothes, finding care for your child before or after school, planning for your child’s fall activity schedule, or concerns about your child’s mental health; you’ll find it easier to remind yourself that feelings come and go. You might be feeling anxious right now, but this feeling will not be around forever. It just feels that way right now.
Take care of yourself! Look for opportunities to meet your own needs. Self-care can be as simple as taking a few minutes to engage in an activity that you enjoy or to connect with people who understand you. Help your body recover with nourishing food, adequate sleep, and movement.
We want our children to feel safe and secure in whatever setting they are in. Here are some strategies to help ease into school:
Accept and validate your child’s feelings. Find the right time to ask your child questions to get a sense of what’s on their mind. Listen to what they are experiencing and do not criticize. the more opportunities you provide for listening to your child, the more comfortable they will be in sharing their experiences throughout the school year. Let your child know that their feelings seem sensible (EX: “Many people feel anxious and uncertain about school. It makes sense that you would be feeling that way, too.”). And let your child know that it’s okay to be feeling whatever it is they’re feeling.
Address your child’s specific worries and concerns. This might mean helping them to find answers to their biggest questions such as looking on the school website or taking the time to go to the school to familiarize themselves with it. Younger children may enjoy going to play on the school playground. Connect your child to a trustful in-school support person and have your child start a relationship; younger children may have meet and greets check-ins and older children may benefit from weekly emails and the understanding they can stop by the support staff’s office. Role-playing scenarios of their big concerns helps to reinforce their skills. Reminders of coping strategies such as using school appropriate fidgets, creating a calm box for classroom, going for a drink of water, needing to take a walk in the hallway, asking for help, grounding exercises, and/or doing deep breathing.
Shifting from summer schedule to school routine: Consider gradually shifting bedtimes and wake-up times a week or two before your child’s first day of school. This will be especially if your child’s school now starts at a new time. Reducing screen time in the evenings and making expectations clear Expectations around turning their screens off will be helpful. Try to ensure mealtimes are occurring at predictable times; when you receive your child’s school schedule, try to adjust their mealtimes to when they will eat in school. Set up mock schoolwork times and in the evenings have their homework times set into their routine.
Pack your bags the night before
There are quite a few things you can do the night before to help the morning run a little more smoothly. Encourage your child to check their backpacks to ensure they have what is needed to be successful the following day. Check the weather report together for the following day and then encourage children to find their outfit (or perhaps have a few handy) so there is not a struggle. And lastly, if your child takes their lunch, pack it together in the evening so it is a quick grab in the morning, so they know what they will be eating.
Communicate with the school
If your child has mental health concerns, create open communication with the school support staff. Provide school staff with morning reports of their evening/morning so staff understand how to interact with your child or how they can help. Don’t wait for an issue to escalate before you reach out to school staff. Ask that school staff communicate about your child’s day so that you understand how to have open conversations with your child about their struggles as well as their encouraging their successes.
First Time in School
For little ones who are going to school for the first time, it’s a really big change! Visit the school several times, ask permission to walk around in the school, and play in the playground. Role-play getting ready for school with their new expectations, establish a goodbye routine, a school drop off, and school pick up. Try to make sure you are always on time to pick your little one up. Perhaps, utilize a transitional object that stays in their backpack; something that will bring them comfort and help them feel connected to home while they are in school.
Each child is unique! Listen to your child, validate their feelings, create age-appropriate expectations, establish a routine, and keep open communication between you and your child as well as with school staff.
Brenda Brooks is a licensed Mental Health therapist (LPCC) with over ten years of experience working in community mental health. At St. David’s Center, she provides clinical services for the school mental health program and the home mental health program working with children with high trauma stressors specifically working with children with ADHD, Autism, high anxiety, and depression.