For many of us, new beginnings represent a time of hope, rejuvenation, and excitement. But what happens when that excitement brings feelings of anxiety or fear? As adults, we’ve developed countless ways to help us manage those feelings ranging from physical activity, to reading, meditation, and a multitude of other strategies we’ve honed over the years.
Our children often feel many of the same emotions when they are presented with the start of a new school year. Students might feel nervous or scared about meeting a new teacher; they could be worried about which peers will be their classmates; or they may be uncomfortable with a change to their summer routine. We, as the parents, caregivers, and teachers can help children develop strategies to help them minimize the impact of their emotions.
Strategies for Handling Emotions: What can we do?
- Talk to your child about what they are feeling.
- Listen to how your child is feeling and why. Write down the emotions and their causes.
- Validate their feelings. Share stories that show you have experienced the same emotions when faced with a change in your routine or life. How did you manage those emotions in a healthy way?
- Set goals. These goals could address academics, social situations, or extracurricular activities. What is your child hoping to learn this year? Are there subjects they are hoping they do better in this year than they did last year? What student skills do they want to improve (such as following directions better, completing homework assignments on time, studying daily instead of cramming the night before a test)? What can your student do to help achieve those goals?
- Tell someone at the school. If you feel that your child’s fears rise to the level that someone at school should know so they can offer support when your child feels overwhelmed during the school day, share your thoughts with a school counselor, classroom teacher, or an administrator.
- Establish a daily routine that more closely reflects what the child will experience when the school year begins. Doing this at least a week ahead of the first day of school will help the child’s biological clock adjust to their new routine and can help their bodies adapt before adding additional stressors like new teachers, new peers, and new classes.
- Return to a “school” sleep schedule. Have your child start going to bed at the time they normally would to wake up early for school and wake them up to get ready for the day when they would need to get ready to catch the bus.
- Schedule meals around the times your child will eat during the school year. If possible, start to adjust meal times and foods to more closely resemble what your child will experience once the school year is up and running. Feeding our bodies healthy, regular meals fuels our energy! Help your child adjust their meals and snacks so they can stay energized throughout the school day and avoid that lag in energy that can sometimes occur when our bodies experience a diet-based change.
- Set up a homework routine and space! I know! I know! Your kids don’t have homework yet. But you can help your child understand that part of his or her routine includes some time to get independent, quiet work done at home.
Set up a specific time and place in your house where homework assignments and study can be completed. If you’ve got a quiet space with a desk, great! If not, try the kitchen table. As much as you can, reduce distractions in that environment and create a welcoming space where they have everything they need at their fingertips. Some things you might want to include could be pens or pencils, colored pencils or crayons and markers, a calculator, scrap paper, and visuals that can be hung up on the wall as aids your child can refer to (think multiplication table charts, printouts of the letters of the alphabet, or for our older students: commonly used formulas for math or science). Include motivational quotes that the child found or decorated that can add a warm, encouraging touch to their space as well. Let your child make this their space with your assistance to keep it streamlined and organized.
Sometimes they may have assignments from school to complete, sometimes they may not. Keep this time consistent by having a selection of activities that they can complete during this homework time when they don’t have school assignments such as mindful coloring, reading a favorite book, or playing their favorite online, academic focused game. Before the school year starts, you and your child might use this time to draw up a visual representation of their schedule for school days. If your child has different classes throughout the day, they may want to create a visual schedule so they know which classroom they need to be in and at what time. During this structured time, try to stay away from activities like video games which might be choice activities during free or play time. Try to encourage activities where children are practicing self-initiated learning.
Suggested Activities to Practice Self-initiated Learning
- Meet the teacher. If your child is nervous about meeting their new teacher, take the first step and allow them to introduce themselves virtually. Maybe a younger child might draw a picture that includes some things they love and want to share with their teacher (you can email this to the teacher for them!) or an older child might draft a short introductory email telling their teachers a little about their learning needs or the goals you set together for the school year. Need some ideas of where to start? Try this template.
- Visit the building together. Inquire with your school if you and your child could visit the building before the school year starts. Let them lead you around the building showing you important places for their upcoming school year such as their classroom(s), the cafeteria, library, and space for electives or specials that they may get to take. Where will they keep their coats during the winter? Who do they go to if they feel sick?
- Practice calming strategies. Sometimes all of the planning we can possibly do ahead of time doesn’t prevent feeling overwhelmed or scared, but there are things we can do to help calm ourselves down in the moment. Take some time, when your child is not feeling overwhelmed, to practice these strategies. Some ideas include deep breathing, a short yoga practice, or a quick guided meditation. Click here for fifty ideas to help calm down. The next time your child is expressing feelings of anxiety or fear, remind them of your practice sessions and help guide them through the strategies you have been working on together.
Over time, you and your child could create a list of strategies that are useful to refer to when needed in the moment. Using pictures (such as the ones in the list linked above) could help minimize the amount of processing a child needs to do when they are already feeling overwhelmed.
- Remind your child that “you’ve got this!” Reassurance from a loved one is sometimes exactly what a child needs to help them regroup. Give them positive feedback and help them remember times that they have done something hard successfully.
If your child faces their fears and does something that scared them initially, celebrate it! This could be as simple as decorating a poster board initially. As your child shares little accomplishments with you, add them to the poster board. You could simply write what they overcame and allow them to add a sticker or they might want to draw and color a picture that represents what they were able to do! Keep this poster visible near their homework space to remind them that they can do hard things with a little courage.
- Celebrate the little things
Celebrate when your child successfully goes through their whole routine with minimal bumps in the road. Celebrate when your child meets a goal they have set. Call attention to their little successes and remind them of their wins whenever you can.