The first day of school for some kids (and parents) can be exciting but can sometimes bring with it tears, dread and even stomach aches and sleep problems. Where will they fit in? Learning coping strategies -- behavioral and cognitive methods for dealing with or reducing the anxiety of a stressful situation -- is key, not only through the school years but for becoming well-adjusted adults as well.
Begin your child's back-to-school schedule about a week before the first day of school. A week should be plenty of time -- too much build up before the big back-to-school event could make a child's anxiety worse. Shop for school supplies and new clothes, plan out lunch menus and make sure transportation and after-school care is arranged as needed. It's also important to begin school year bedtime and morning routines early.
Be sure to involve the whole family as to not single out any one individual: school schedules are sure to impact everyone in the home and it'll be easier if you all adjust together.
Focus on the positive by asking your child about what things about school they're excited about, and let 'recess' or 'coming home' count as answers. Reassure your child that he or she will be safe. And as school begins, be sure to praise your child for being brave and facing their fears. And yes, this even works for teens too, if you approach the conversation in the right way.
Watch what you say, though. There's a difference between being cheerful and unintentionally adding worries to the mix. General reassurances such as, "Everything will be fine!" aren't solution-oriented. And statements like "This is a big year for you," or "This year really counts" are stressful and set unrealistic expectations. Try to redirect the worries to the positives.
Why not call the school and arrange for you and your child to attend an orientation day or take an informal tour before classes start? Orientation days are important for kids who will be attending a new school, but also helpful for anxious kids who may be able to check out their new classroom, their locker and desk, meet their new teacher and tour the school when it's not packed with other kids.
Some kids might benefit from role-playing school activities with you, especially small children facing their first time going to school. Role-playing gives you the opportunity to model appropriate behaviors while allowing your child to gain confidence and calm fears about anxious situations.
Most of us are more comfortable in any given situation if we know what to expect. Kids are no different. Talk positively to your kids about school -- and learning in general -- and have detailed conversations about what the school day might be like. Have a little fun with the scenario if it helps.
Most importantly, open a dialogue with your kids about what makes them feel anxious about going back to school. Maybe it's something obvious, such as attending a new school or going to a school with older kids, but the reason(s) may surprise you. If you don't ask, you can't help.
Be sure you're not modeling anxious behavior, as kids can easily pick up on that. Be strong and avoid tears (they'll never know about the lump in your throat, though). Avoid a long goodbye, and give kids a chance to adjust to their new classroom before volunteering or visiting.
Plan your day so you can easily be on time (or a little early) for morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up, whether it's at the school or the bus stop. Not only will this ease your child's stress that they will be late or you won't be waiting for them, but it will reduce your own stress of rushing from place to place.