It was the first day of kindergarten and my little one was already dealing with a lot of separation anxiety due to a fairly recent trauma. We were in counseling to deal with it and things were going well, but any new change caused stress…and this was a big one. Kindergarten meant he wouldn’t be with me and despite me telling him how great it was going to be, he was not wanting to go. Looking back almost 16 years, I suppose I could have homeschooled and I considered it. However, on the advice of counselors, and what we felt was best for our child, we decided on a small, private school. I can tell you that it was a hard adjustment. He would cry and cling to me when I would drop him off. He would jump back and forth over the seat of our SUV when we pulled up to the school, trying to delay having to get out of the car. He wasn’t doing it to be disobedient. He was scared, and that broke my heart. I would get him out of the car and carry him to his kindergarten class. I would get back into the car and cry all the way home. I knew his stress was more than just the “normal” adjustment that takes place for most kindergarteners.
Because our situation was complicated, I ended up talking with his teacher and explaining why he was having a hard time. She was amazing and asked me to come and volunteer in the classroom. This allowed me to be present throughout the week and gave my child a sense of safety and security. Little by little, I came less and less. I remained the room mom to have a presence at the school, and I felt blessed to do so. I realize not everyone has this opportunity. Our situation was unique.
However, whether dealing with normal back to school anxiety or stress that comes from other issues, back to school can be difficult time for some children.
So what can parents of a stressed child do when it’s that time of year again?
First, make it fun. Go get school supplies together and allow your child to pick out a special notebook or backpack that they like. You can even let them help you choose an outfit to wear on the first day of school. For young children, measure them on a door frame, and tell them you will measure them again on the last day of school to see how much they have grown. Keep the focus on the positive. Pray about making new friends. Talk about new classes.
Second, reassure and encourage your child. They need to know that no matter what, you are in their corner and on their side. If they worry about making new friends, you can role play how they might introduce themselves to others. For little ones, who might be feeling separation anxiety, you can act out the first day of school with their action heroes or dolls. This way they know what to expect. For example, you pretend you wake them up and get breakfast, drive to school and drop them at their classroom etc. Always end the role play with you coming back to the school to pick them up and take them home. Do this several times a week. This will reinforce in their little minds that while they will be away from you for a bit, they will always come back home to you.
For older children, talk through whatever fears they might have. They may wonder if they will have anyone in their classes. They may feel anxious about finding friends to eat with at lunch. There may be a sense of worry over getting their lockers opened, or finding their classrooms.
Many schools will let you come up and find your child’s locker prior to school starting or walk the halls to find their classroom. You can even let them practice their combination lock until they feel secure getting it and the locker to open.
Third, encourage your child that they are capable and able to handle a new school year. They need to know that you believe in them. Let them know that you want to know the good and bad parts of their days. An easy way is high/low. What was the high point of your day? What was the low point of your day?
Fourth and most important, pray with your child before school each morning and reassure them of your love for them. And pray again at night. Praying at night allows you to lift up concerns your child might have regarding the next day at school.
Fifth, make lunches the night before. You can even lay out clothes for the next day as well. Have a regular bedtiime and stick to a routine. Routines give security and children do better when they know what to expect.
Last of all, know your child’s needs. Some children are more simply more prone to anxiety than others. Learning disabilities, traumatic events, extenuating circumstances and special needs can contribute to these feelings. So don’t’ be afraid to talk to your child’s teacher if your child is going through a difficult time.
Last of all, remember that some years will be easier than others. However, if our outlook is positive and we encourage good things for our children, it can make for a better year.