Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels.
It is back to school time again. Returning to school after summer vacation is a major transition. We have talked about transitions and what a challenge they are for everybody, especially for young children and vulnerable children of any age. Here are some ideas about how to make back to school time easier for everyone.
Try to Be Calm and Relaxed
Parents’ communication of anxiety to their child plays a significant role in the anxiety experienced by the child. Evidence for this influence is presented in a recent review of 15 studies addressing the question of the extent to which fear-relevant features of parental verbal communications affected the child (Percy et al, 2016). However, scientific studies are not necessary to convince teachers of this fact. Observations in a typical classroom offer support for this important dynamic. For example, I observed a father dropping off his 4-year old daughter, giving her a hug, and asking her, “Will you be all right, now?” She said, “Yes, Daddy.” The father responded, “Are you sure?”
In fact, much of this communication occurs nonverbally in parents’ behavior – such as lingering in the classroom, returning to the child after the initial good bye to add some information or give some advice. After the child is in the hands of the teacher, it is almost never a good idea for the parent to return if the child complains or even cries.
For young child, the most effective way parents can support him or her at drop off is to communicate positive feelings about the experience, to “hand off” the child to a teacher, and to leave. For example, a parent might find a teacher and in the child’s presence tell the teacher something about the ride to school or the child’s excitement about the class activity planned for the day, reassure the child about who is picking up the child and when, give the child a hug, and say good bye.
All children have some anxiety about returning to school – usually to a new classroom, a new teacher, and new classmates. Children express their anxiety in different ways. Most young children express their anxiety verbally and by clinging to a parent. Other children express it by running from one activity to another in a dysregulated manner. And others become more constrained, holding themselves in, sitting quietly and avoiding taking risks.
Some children are particularly vulnerable to separations and transitions and need extra support. Some need to bring a comforting object from home to help with the transition (although that object must usually be put away after the class begins). A goodbye ritual is helpful to all children. The parent can help the child hang up her coat, check the schedule for the day, wash her hands, etc. In some of the classrooms of the preschool where I work there is a “goodbye window” where parents can say another goodbye after they have exited the school building.
Listening to Your Child
Communicating positive expectations to the child does not mean that the parent – or teacher – refuses to listen to the child’s concerns. No matter how unrealistic the child’s fears might be, the adult must take them seriously as fears – not as reality – and validate them. For example, the child may say, “You won’t come to pick me up!” The parent must respond with some kind of acknowledgement of the child’s fear that he will be abandoned in this scary place, while also reassuring him that his fears are unjustified. For example, she might say, “That is such a scary thought, that I wouldn’t pick you up. I know you are scared. But you know that I really will pick you up at lunchtime and that Ms. Smith (the teacher) will take good care of you until then. You are going to have a cooking activity today. You know how much you love that!”
Familiarity with the School
Familiarity with the school helps too. Most schools have visiting days, but some children need time to familiarize themselves with the school without the noise and activity of many other children and parents. Other ways to help the child feel comfortable include coming to the school when it is not in session and playing on the playground (if that is permitted) or walking around the building and pointing out where the child’s classroom is located, where the parent will bring the child and pick her up.
Get to School On Time
Getting to school on time is important for many reasons. At the beginning of the school day the teachers have more availability to greet the child and parent than when groups of children and parents descend on the classroom. The classroom is less noisy and has less physical activity – sensory challenges that are particularly hard for some children. Being rushed does not lend itself to a positive good bye. Also, teachers usually plan “free play” time at the beginning of the day, and if children come to class late, they miss that important and enjoyable time.
Percy R, Creswell C, Garner M, O’Brien D, Murray L (2016). Parents’ verbal communication and childhood anxiety: a systematic review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 19(1):55-75.