Kids are about to return school and for some of you, it won’t be easy. Former school principal Simon da Roza has some advice to help parents deal with their child’s back-to-school anxiety.
The first day of the school year gets all the publicity, but its poor cousin – the first day of term two – is often just as challenging for kids. For some children, returning to school after a busy period of adjustment during term one, followed by the short Easter holidays, can be more confronting than starting term one.
Even the most resilient of students can find themselves braving bullying, academic failure, unmet expectations or stress during term one, only to relax over the April holidays and be surprised by inexplicable anxiety when returning for term two.
Whether your child breezes into the term, or comes up against delayed hurdles – some simple steps can transform a stressful start into a great experience.
Early education expert Simon da Roza offers 8 tips for an easy start to term two.
1. As a parent, your attitudes towards teachers and school are crucial to ensuring an excellent term.
Children learn from the moment they are born and have an endless appetite for finding patterns to make sense of their ever-changing and expanding world. They quickly learn to read your body language, tone and mood – and you are your child’s most influential teacher.
If you are feeling negative or apprehensive about the start of term, your children will pick up your feelings.
If you have spent the holidays openly expressing anxiety, disdain or nervousness about their classroom/teacher/fellow students/school rules or procedures, your child will look for problems there as well.
Consciously use your facial expressions, body language and words to convey a positive message.
2. Once you’ve set the tone, then create expectations.
Remember when you helped your child learn to walk?
You had the expectation that they would, you supported them, and encouraged them physically and verbally. You set little achievable tasks, celebrated their first small steps, captured those moments on-camera and proudly shared them with friends and family. You had expectations, you knew exactly what your child had to do, and you adjusted their environment to give them the best possible opportunity at success. You persevered through failures — and it worked.
It will continue to work as you empower your child, through feedback about their language development, physical development and other newly-acquired skills this term.
3. Get an honest understanding of your child’s level of development.
In some ways, each year parents “go back to school” with their kids. Modern schools are very different places from those you attended. The expectations are higher — much, much higher.
Knowing the school your child is attending – and their development expectations at each year level – is important.
Related content: What you need to know about THAT kid in your child’s class.
If your child hasn’t yet acquired expected skills, don’t panic. There’s an abundance of resources (online and face-to-face) that have been created for this exact purpose, and can be employed at home or among your extended family and friends to help support and encourage your child’s development.
Make an appointment with your child’s teacher and ask them for feedback on your child’s academic, social and emotional development during term one. Create a written plan. Be honest with yourself about your child’s abilities, and avoid making excuses. Channel your energies into being proactive about supporting their growth.
4. Practice the daily structure.
Use the home environment to calmly structure any experiences your child is struggling to get used to at school — from remembering to bring their belongings home, to eating lunch while sitting in a circle on the ground. Some children may be finding it hard to get up on time, or complete their spelling list practice each week.
Related content: Karl Stevanovic goes on a rant about children’s homework.
These are all things that can be addressed to avoid relating their experience of school to stress or humiliation. Pace yourself and reinforce these responsibilities at home through daily events.
Create a chart or list, using words or pictures depending on your child’s reading level. Don’t forget to reflect on where you have come from, and how much has been achieved. It’s a wonderful opportunity to show how big tasks can be broken into small manageable tasks, while building your child’s self esteem and resilience.
5. Be an optimist.
You will reap the rewards of this investment for years to come. When issues come up during second term – and they will at some point – have discussions about being an optimist and what an optimist thinks, says and does.
This will be more beneficial if you have had the opportunity to lay the foundations of this important value over the preceding days, weeks or months, but it is never too late to start! Whether they’re handling altercations with their peers or feeling academically overloaded, an optimist chooses remember the successes they have had in the past.
They remember that they overcame anxious moments before, and were brave. This bravery leads to wonderful new discoveries, reduced stress – and fun.
6. At school…
Give. It. Time.
Each school community is markedly different; despite this there are some commonalities, such as settling in time or drop off procedures. Staying too long can make even the happiest child unsettled.
I have heard parents say to children: “I’m leaving now – you aren’t going to cry are you?”
But this begs the question in the child’s mind: yes you are leaving — should I be crying? It’s like sowing a seed of doubt in the child’s mind. It is much safer to say “have a great day, bye!” Then, don’t hang around and draw it out.
Related content: Em Rusciano’s guide to the first day of school.
If you are having trouble leaving and the teacher’s aids haven’t noticed, ask them for assistance. If your child has exhibited separation anxiety, remember to stay optimistic and outline that feelings change and pass – and that the feelings they have now will pass also. Be careful of the “just one more kiss” or “just one more hug” spiral.
One more kiss means just that; any more just feeds avoidance behaviour and can be heart breaking for both of you. Remember children know you they push your buttons and pull on your heartstrings not because they are naughty or nasty, but because they have learnt that this has worked for them in the past. Full of adrenaline and anticipation, children make not be as sensitive to your feelings at this point in time as they might normally be.
Finally, once you do disentangle yourself, stay away. Don’t pop your head back in.
7. Encourage your child to make friends.
The single best way to combat bullying is for child to have friends. Lone children can be targets for bullies.
Point out to children the things you may take for granted as an adult – but needed to be explicitly taught as kids – things like smiles, looking at the person, using names and using a conﬁdent, friendly voice.
Being prepared to take turns can make a big difference when making friends. All children will experience friendship issues sometime in their school life and you cannot be there to solve all their problems, so empowering them with skills to resolve these independently is essential.
Related content: 8 things you need to know about 11-year-olds.
Even just one or two playdates over holidays can make a big difference; it allows you to observe their play behaviour while strengthening friendships that were forged in term one.
If your child found it hard to develop friendships in term one, talk to their teacher about the behaviours they observed that might be preventing your child from connecting, or maintaining, friendships with other children.
Teachers have plenty of tricks to help encourage friendships between complementary personalitites, so ask the teacher for gentle guidance and encouragement in this area. A great way parents can encourage friendships – and not just within one gender group – is to play sports, providing great opportunities for children to make friends, practice listening to other adults, develop physical skills, resilience, a team focus and have fun.
8. Behavioural changes you might notice early in the term.
You may notice your child displays some all or none of the behaviours listed below during term two, some of which they may never have demonstrated before. It’s all normal – children may a have a mix of emotions and not have the words to express their stress at tackling this new and challenging situation. They might:
· Be more clingy then normal and hang onto your leg, impeding any forward movement or escape from or towards the classroom door.
· Appear restless and flighty.
· Demonstrate increased inappropriate attention-seeking behaviours.
· Show and increased desire to avoid activities through increased negotiations and deal making.
· Revert to immature behaviour such as thumb sucking, ‘baby’ language or even increased attachment to favourite soft toys.
· In some cases sleep, bed wetting and diet may even be altered.
These behaviours will pass in most cases; be reassured, they are not a sign of poor parenting skills or developmental problems. But if they persist, talk to your class teacher or education expert so you can work on a strategy to support the child out of these behaviours together.
Have faith in your children’s ability to adapt. Have faith in your ability to guide and support your child through this transition.
If you are confident and relaxed – and have plans in place – you will understand what the child’s day will be like.
Then your child will ‘read’ this confidence in the words you choose to use, your actions, your conversations with friends, teachers and others – and they will also be confident and ready.
Simon Da Roza is a childhood education expert with 25 years experience as a deputy principal and specialist educator in early learning, literacy, boys’ education and autism. His commentary and research on experiential education, resilience, self esteem and child safety have been published – and implemented in schools – in urban and rural Australia. Simon was also the co-developer of the world’s smallest GPS tracking safety watch for kids, TicTocTrack, which safely empowers children with the independence, sense of adventure and exploration that is crucial to their development.
Simon is a father of six whose passions include running, raising funds for kids with cancer and advocating for integral allied health resources in regional schools. More of his education and child development tips can be found at www.tictoctrack.com.au/blog
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