I'm not coming down and you can't make me
Recently a media outlet in Dubai asked me to weigh in on back-to-school issues. Just goes to show that a) when you’re on a deadline, even Annie Fox is an “expert” and b) like kids everywhere, young ‘uns in the world’s second largest oil economy have “issues” when it’s time to crack the books again.
The interviewer’s questions were good. I give my answers a solid B+. Maybe an A- (depending on whether she grades on a curve). 90% of my responses will probably end up on the cutting room floor. (While down from its peak, print real estate is still expensive in Dubai.) The pearls that see the light of day aren’t likely to be seen by many of you, so I thought I’d post the whole banana. You may find some valuable tips as you and your kids head back into the fray. If not, you can always use my blog to line your virtual bird cages.
Q: Why can the time leading up to the start of a new academic year be stressful, for both children and parents? What can we do to make it better?
Transitions can be hard for people of all ages. We get into a routine where we feel comfortable and competent – familiar with our surroundings and the people we share our lives with. All this helps us feel safe and at ease. Then we start a new chapter with many unknowns. We’re likely to feel a little anxious about what’s ahead. It’s the same with the transition from summer to school. Lots of worries and questions can fill the minds of parents and kids: Will I like my teacher? Will I get teased? Will my child make friends Will my child be able to keep up with the work? etc.
We can best alleviate this kind of stress by staying in present time. In other words, deal with what’s happening now. Also, recognize that many of the “fears and anxieties” that trigger a stress-response are, in fact, non-existent. They may happen in the future or they may never happen. If they do happen, it’s not likely they will happen in the same way (and to the same degree) as we’ve imagined.
Talking about fears and worries is a good way to quiet an over-active imagination. Encourage your child to talk about what’s on his/her mind when thinking about going back to school. As you listen, do not correct, interrupt, reinterpret, evaluate, invalidate, etc. Just listen as you child expresses the feelings behind the worries. After your child has spoken his mind, reassure yourself and your child that you will work together as a team to deal with any and all challenges that come up during the new school year. In fact, taking the point of view that this is a “challenge” vs. a “problem” can also go a long way in alleviating anticipatory stress.
Q: What are the main things children worry about before returning to school?
Social acceptance and academic success. Why? Because for a child (and for parents as well), being popular and getting good grades are the most important measures of school success. Whether that’s an accurate assessment of “success” is another story.
Q: What challenges do children who are starting at a new school face? How can you best prepare your child for these?
Changing school due to relocation: New school new kids. This is challenging at any age, but particularly for middle school students as they are “peer approval addicts” and coming into a new school where peer groups are already tightly bonded can create the feeling that “I don’t fit in with anyone!” If at all possible, move before the first day of school. Connect with a couple of new neighbors with kids the same age as yours. Starting the first day with at least one person that you know can make a huge difference in transitioning into a new school. Also, contact the principal before school starts. Introduce yourself and your child… Go to the school together for a meeting. Get a tour. Find out if they’ve got a buddy system for new students (even if it’s only for the first few days. Having a friendly student assigned to helping a newbie learn the ropes, is a huge plus!) Also talk to the principal about extra-curricular activities that match your child’s interests. (Teams and clubs are great ways to make new friends.) Talk about the route to school as well.
Going to school for the first time: Assuming that parents have instilled a positive attitude about going to school and getting an education, it’s very likely that a young child going to school for the first time will see it as an adventure that they’ve been eagerly awaiting and a sign that they are growing up. If, for whatever reason, a child feels anxious about being away from home/Mom, etc. make sure that he/she is not picking up any of your own separation anxiety. If you’ve got any worries swirling around in your head (“Will my child be safe?” “Will he fit in?” “Will I be able to carry on with my day without thinking about him every minute??”) deal with your own stuff in healthy ways so that you only communicate confidence in your child’s ability to manage in a new situation without you. “School will be fun!” “You’ll do great!” “Every day when you come home, you can tell me all the cool things that happened in school.” Also, many of the tips from the previous answer (changing school due to relocation) fit here as well. Do whatever you can to make the child familiar with the new school, activities, principal, route, etc. Be positive and your child will be too.
Moving up to high school: Everyone in the freshman class is in the same boat. That’s a good thing! School administrators, counselors, and teachers all have loads of experience helping freshman become acclimated to high school. As a parent, acknowledge that feeling a bit anxious about starting high school is absolutely normal. Reassure your child that you have total confidence in their ability to deal, and that you will be there to support them in dealing with whatever challenges come up.
Q: What school supplies does every child need at the beginning of a new academic year?
A clean, well-lit, organized space to study and do homework in. Everything else will either be provided by the school or itemized on a list. Buying a bunch of stuff before your child knows what the teacher wants each student to have is a waste of time and money.
Q: How can you help your child ease back into the routine of early mornings, homework, extracurriculars?
A week before school starts, help your child get back on a “school schedule” by enforcing a realistic bedtime that will, in fact, mirror the time he/she needs to get up for school. Also, before school starts have them do a “test run” of getting up at the right time, getting ready and out the door and getting to school. Let them do the whole thing so they can see how long it actually takes. That’s the only way they’ll know how much time they need in the morning.
As for easing back into the routine of homework and extra-curricular activities, you can’t really “test run” those. But you absolutely can discuss what worked and what didn’t work in the way school obligations were handled last year. Do not repeat behaviors that caused stress! Now’s the time to think about changing what didn’t work.
Q: What advice can you give to children who are afraid of making new friends?
Children who haven’t had good success yet at making friends may well feel nervous about giving it another try. Parents can help with younger children by setting up play dates with especially friendly kids. A little success and confidence in making friends on a one-to-one basis in a home environment can go a long way to building friendship skills at school. For older children, encourage participation in after school teams, clubs, etc. Make sure you let the child’s interests determine the activity.
Q: What are your top 5 tips for parents dealing with a child that doesn’t want to go back to school after the holidays?
- Encourage your child to talk about what’s going on. Talking about fears with someone who is really listening, can decrease the power of negative emotions.
- Listen with compassion and understanding to what he/she says. Don’t interrupt or invalidate. Whatever your child is feeling is NORMAL. Tell him/her that. Also express your confidence in your child’s ability to be a great friend and a good student.
- Brainstorm (together with your child) a list of all the things he/she did/accomplished last school year that he/she feels proud of.
- Brainstorm (together with your child) a list of all the things he/she did last year that he/she would like to change. Remind your child that you cannot change the behavior of others nor can you undo the past. But we can learn from the choices we make and consciously choose to make different (more helpful) choices in the future.
- Work with your child to set some realistic goals for the first month of school, be they social or academic. Then agree to meet again one month in the future to check the progress he/she has made in reaching those goals.
OK, there you have it. You’re all set for school. But wait! It’s only August 4th, 5th… whatever. Still summer. How about getting off the computer and enjoying what’s left of it? And take your kid with you!
fyi: If you’ve got a parenting question, email me… I’ve got plenty of answers (They’re in my closet. One is sure to fit.)