When my son Eli started first grade last year, he was anxious about the things that most kids fear. What if he didn’t like his teacher? Or something was really hard? Or none of his friends were in his class?
The last one was his worst-case-scenario: no friends. To ease his worries, I called a few other parents. To Eli’s disappointment — and mine a little, too — it seemed as though none of his friends from kindergarten would be in his class that year.
I knew that in the real worst-case scenario, he would make friends with whomever was in his class; Eli has the ability to be friends with everyone. Still, I didn’t want him to worry. Ever the optimist, I told him a little story.
“I’ll bet that right now there is a kid who has just moved here. He is sitting at home, just like you, worrying that he will not have any friends.”
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This seemed to ease his worries, at least a little bit, and on Meet-the-Teacher Night my prediction came true. Like magic, a little girl entered the classroom. She was new, had just moved to Fort Worth from another state and was worried about making friends.
Heroically, Eli took her by the hand and gave her a tour of the classroom, despite the fact that first grade was new to him, too. The pair instantly hit it off and have become good friends.
Children naturally worry about going back to school. Parents do, too. There is something about the unknown, even if it’s just a new grade in the same school, that bothers just about every child.
We talked with Lisa M. Elliott, a licensed psychologist and clinic manager at Cook Children’s Medical Center; Cynthia Bethany, a licensed clinical social worker and critical incident specialist for the Fort Worth school district; and Kathryn Everest, the director of guidance and counseling for the Fort Worth school district, about how parents can help ease their students’ back-to-school nerves.
1. “Be sure to attend any type of school orientation day,” says Elliott. Most schools offer a meet-the-teacher night so that students can acclimate themselves to the new environment.
Spend some time talking to the teacher and familiarizing yourself with the new classroom. This will also give your child a chance to see who will be in her class.
“If you are concerned that your child does not feel comfortable with their new teacher, be sure to speak to your child’s teacher in the first few weeks to help facilitate a closer relationship,” Elliott suggests.
2. Ease into your new routine, starting a few weeks before the first day. Summer is often more laid-back, but the school year should have a set schedule.
“Start getting a good night’s sleep,” recommends Bethany.
Slowly get back into an earlier bedtime with less television and video game play. Rather than making a big change all at once, move bedtime a few minutes earlier each night.
Elliot also recommends going a step further: “Help your child prepare mentally for school by reading more, practice math facts and engage in other fun academic-related games.”
3. “Talk about what to expect,” recommends Bethany. The social and environmental challenges are often more daunting than the academic ones.
Older kids will have more responsibilities, but make sure you have reasonable expectations as a parent. Tell your child about your own experiences in school. No matter how old you are, your child will find your stories fascinatingly “old-fashioned.”
Ask your child to tell you what he enjoyed best about the previous year and give him the chance to reminisce.
4. Listening to your child’s fears is important, says Everest. No matter what your child is worrying about, take the time to stop and listen to him. Rather than telling him not to worry, assure him that his fears are valid.
“Don’t be too quick to rescue them,” she says.
Your child needs to be able to work through minor issues on his own. However, you can ask what you can do to help and then make that happen.
5. Involve your child in supply shopping. Crowded stores and waiting in lines may not sound like much fun.
However, letting kids choose some of the supplies will “help them to take ownership,” says Elliot. Even if you have a fairly specific list, your child can choose items in her favorite color or a lunch box with her favorite cartoon characters.
6. Stay positive. If you had a bad school experience or your child has in the past, it is important not to pass that negativity on to your child, cautions Bethany.
“Our children often take their cues from us as parents,” says Elliott. Focus on what is most comforting, whether that is something new and exciting or old and reliable.
7. Plan the first day. You do not want to forget things or be rushed.
“Organization can often help ease your child’s concerns,” says Elliot. She recommends laying out clothes and packing lunches the night before.
8. Be informed. Parents are not immune to first-day jitters, but knowing what your child is doing will make it easier.
“Arm yourself with plenty of information,” says Bethany. The teacher will send home lots of paper work that should be kept and organized so that you can refer to it with questions.
Make sure you have contact information and know how your child’s teacher prefers to be contacted.
9. Send a photo or notes. For young children or those with separation anxiety, send a photo that can be kept in the locker or pencil box.
“A very helpful tool is to place a family photo in a photo keychain that they can attach to their backpack,” Elliott suggests.
Your child can check in with your smiling face whenever he is feeling anxious. A short note in the lunchbox will also brighten your child’s day. Even for those too young to read, a cute doodle or “I (heart) U” is perfect.
10. Set goals for the year. Ask your child what he or she is looking forward to most, says Elliot. Create a list of things your child wants to accomplish this year, such as honor roll or a certain number of Accelerated Reader points.
When the goal is met, celebrate it.