Navigating a New School Year
We’ve all heard the saying that ‘change is a part of life’. These changes can be new people, new environments, a change in family dynamics or even a schedule change. For some people, these changes are adapted to easily and others take longer to adjust and can be thrown into panic mode.
Nowhere is this more true than when a child starts a new year at school. The school itself may be new, the classroom different, the teacher a different personality from last year and there may be changes in the social make up of the class. These changes can trigger anxiety in not only the children who are transitioning from one school year to the next but also to parents who worry about how their child will respond to these new demands. These feelings from both children and parents whether in the form of anxiety or feeling a little unsettled is perfectly normal in the first few weeks. However, children learn what they see. By developing your own relationship with the new teacher – they are more likely to! By allowing them to see you are excited about the new things they are learning, they will follow suit and be more willing to experience new things. A parent’s behaviour can show in a very powerful way that different or new does not mean bad and this helps children to begin to model adaptability and resilience.
During times of change or anxiety, we all cling to what is familiar and predictable and there are ways to help you child to do this at a point in their lives where they feel that everything is changing. The first way to help children feel grounded is to have a known and set routine during the times of day when they are not at school. Both the morning and evening routines should be things that stay the same no matter what day of the week. Eg: There is breakfast every morning and getting into pyjamas every night. This routine is something that should stay the same on weekends and you can start to get into as the school holidays come to an end. If you can, wait until term 2 to introduce after school activities, for the same reasons, to limit any additional transitional challenges for your child, with beginning a school year being enough for their little body and mind to navigate at the one time.
Another way to increase safety and security for your child in the first few weeks is to allow them to have an object possibly a toy from home that they take with them in their bag. In doesn’t have to come out during the day, but knowing that it is there can help them feel calmer if they are feeling uncertain about what is expected of them. This isn’t something they will need forever but something that can be used as a ‘ transition object’ to help them make sense of the new environment and routine.
One of the advantages of using a transition object is that it allows your child to feel in control – they know when they feel anxious or sad, they can be reassured by looking at it. This feeling of being in control is very powerful when it comes to navigating change. Control often comes from knowledge. Therefore, the more knowledge you can equip your child with before they start the new school year, the more empowered they are likely to feel.
The first thing to empower them with is the feeling of what a new year actually means. Do they understand that last year’s teacher is no longer going to be with them every day? Have they said goodbye properly to last year’s classmates, teachers and environments? Have they seen their new classroom and had the opportunity to ask questions and picture it in their minds? You can provide the opportunity for them to do all of these things by creating opportunities for discussion, allowing them to write a letter to last year’s teacher saying thank you or doing a craft activity in which they design the perfect classroom and discuss the differences between the year that has finished and the one still to come.
Social stories are another fantastic way to create opportunities for open conversations with your child about what is coming up and what changes are happening. This may allow them to open up about anything that is worrying them about what is to come. You can buy or make a book where your child is the main character who experiences their first days and weeks in their new classroom. The more personal you can make this book, the bigger effect it is likely to have.
Once your child has understood and is ready to tackle what lies ahead, it is time to give them ownership wherever you can of the transition about to take place. When it comes to a new school year, simple things like taking them to uniform shop to try on their uniform rather than buying online, can help them process what is about to happen. Allowing them to choose their own stationary or water bottle or decide what will be in their lunch box for the first week are other examples of how to do this. If you have a pre school shopping list, allow them to come with you as you tick things off on it. The more a part of things they feel, the bigger sense of achievement when they are actually dressed and ready on day 1!
Finally, for children who are particularly anxious and need motivation simply to walk through the gates, it is worth considering some incentives. This can be as little or big as they need depending on the child but one example would be a star on a chart or a token for each thing they do that helps them get to school on time and depending on how many they get, you will bring them a treat at the end of the day.
Change is hard for everyone and some personalities will do better than others but by finding some of the tools that work best for your child and family, hopefully back to school season will be one of smiles and calm rather than tears!