Deeply Rooted in Making the Transition Back to School

By Collette Dawson-Loveless

Transitions are hard for some of us. It seems like we just got adjusted to our summertime routine and it is now time to get ready for school to begin again. Some children handle the transitions well without much preparation, but for many the changes come with increased stress, anxiety and with that, acting out with aggression, anger, or somatic complaints.

During the summer we often become more relaxed and enjoy a looser self-imposed structure and rhythm. Bed-time creeps later and later as the sun stretches into the evening. We have slower mornings when children can wake to their body clocks instead of alarm clocks and our rules in general tend to bend as we enjoy vacations and extended family visits. 

Getting prepared for returning to school requires more than buying school clothes and school supplies. Some things that will support a smoother transition to the tighter structure required by accommodating school in the coming weeks are as follows:

Re-establish a regular bedtime and waking time. It can be harder to go to bed on time in the summer months. It is light out late and there is no need for early rising so we may even encourage a later bedtime for these lazy days of summer. But, now that school is on the horizon, tidying up our sleep hygiene is a great place to begin. We know that we are all more irritable and emotional when we are tired. So, begin to reset that body clock by adjusting that bedtime 15 -30 minutes earlier each evening until we have returned to a regular school-year bedtime.

Re-establish other routines before school actually begins as well. Whatever is typical of your day-to-day life that may have slipped away during the summertime; this may include the types and times for chores to be completed, a regular reading time that can float into homework time when school starts, regular meal times together. What are some of the things you and your family do during the school year that change during the summer? The transition back to school will be easier as we add those back into our family life before school begins. Children (and adults) typically do better when they know what to expect. Getting these routines back in place helps increase the predictability in their lives and they are calmer as a result.

Anxiety may peak at this time of transition as well. Help children relax by reading stories and sending messages that share that mom and dad always come back. They can be soothed by a transitional object or a symbolic one. Transitional objects are usually something that mom or dad has worn. It can be anything from jewelry to a sweater, but they remind the child of the parent and are a tangible promise that the parent will return. The children’s book “The Kissing Hand” tells the story of the little racoon who worries about being separated from mom during school. She kisses his hand and tells him that anytime he needs mom he can place his hand on his cheek and feel mom with him there. Another book “The Invisible String” tells a similar story. In it we learn that we are all connected at our hearts through invisible strings. So, no matter how near or far, that love never goes away.

Identify your own emotions about school. Are you nervous about the school year starting up again? Do you have worries or concerns about your child? Are you unhappy with the time or class assigned? We convey a lot of our own feelings in non-verbal ways to our children. Remember, you set the tone. Dr. Garry Landreth has a rule of thumb we like to share on this point. He tells parents to be the Thermostat and not the Thermometer in the home. In other words, don’t be reactive to information. Rather, intentionally choose your response to situations and work them through with your spouse or another adult friend so that children do not feel the burden of parental responsibilities.

Listen to the concerns of your child. We do not feel we can relax or trust our loved ones when they dismiss us outright. Even if the concern seems silly, do not make this mistake. When were you ever soothed by someone simply telling you that what you are upset about is nothing to worry over? Once your child feels understood, if they want to problem solve with you, they are in a better frame of mind to accept your input. Additionally, once you understand the specific issue causing distress you are in a better position to offer a suggestion that will alleviate the problem. Sometimes though, children just want to vent about a situation and are not looking for advice.

Notice when continued complaints of stomach aches or headaches arise that are not explainable by a medical condition. First consult with a doctor. If there is no medical reason for the physical complaints, perhaps there is more going on than meets the eye.

Some areas of potential concern include:

  • Bullying
  • Learning disorders
  • Mental health concerns
    • General Anxiety
    • Separation Anxiety
    • Depression
    • OCD
    • Adjustment Disorder (after a move or divorce)

Most children are highly resilient and can manage the distress of going back to school with relative ease. Even some who start off the day upset can quickly recover and enjoy their time in the classroom. Consult with your child’s teacher to see how they respond during the day and if you get positive reports then you can continue to leave them at school despite minor complaints.

If, however, you suspect there may be deeper underlying issues, get a mental health check-up. Your therapist can help you understand what is going on in the mind beneath the behavior of the child and together you can make a plan for supporting your child in getting back to school quickly and consistently.