Some children are excited for the start of the new school year, and jump right back into school routines, and being part of a new classroom. Other children do not feel this way, and can struggle for weeks and even months with going back to school.
For children who have disabilities, school may represent a difficult and discouraging environment. For a child with Autism, transitioning from the summer schedule back to school can be a difficult transition.
What can parents do for a child who continues to struggle with returning to school? Here are a few ideas that could help. While every idea might not fit for your family, you might find one or two that could be helpful.
1) Start the day off goofy, and keep your child occupied. Once your child is up and moving in the morning, have some fun together in a way that is warm, silly and distracts your child from feeling sorry for himself, or thinking about school. Dye his milk green. Make a waffle and whipped cream sandwich for breakfast. Listen to your favorite song while you brush your teeth.
2) Especially if your child is young, make your drop-off routine quick and positive. Lingering, going back for second hugs and third hugs, and allowing your child to detain you can make meltdowns worse. It can be hard to peel a sobbing toddler from your leg and leave with a cheery “have a great day!” but this is best. Especially if your child is young, teachers are accustomed to dealing with weepy and clingy reactions from children, and have strategies in place to help your child calm down and adjust to the classroom. If your older child is weeping and clinging, consider small rewards for completing steps in the going-to-school routine. One year was especially difficult for my elementary school aged son, so once he was finally buckled in the car and we were driving to school, he ate a piece of Halloween candy. (Yes, Halloween candy. We were still having school morning meltdowns in November.) Praising your child for steps like getting in the car, and getting into the school building can help her focus on something positive, and have something to look forward to.
3) Put something fun in your child’s lunch or pocket. A cartoon, silly note on a napkin, or favorite food can help a child have something to look forward to mid-way through the day. You want to avoid writing “Daddy misses you SO MUCH!” on a note, which can cause your child to relapse into weeping. However, a doodle of a favorite animal, favorite flavor of yogurt, or silly cartoon can put a smile on your child’s face, encourage conversations at the lunch table, and give him something to look forward to. Does your child eat a hot lunch, and not take a lunch to school? Consider tucking something in his or her coat pocket (or pants pocket) to accomplish the same goal.
4) Partner with your child’s teacher. Could your child have a special job he likes, such as feeding the class hamster, or delivering a note to the office? Collaborating with school staff to keep your child thinking positively about the day, and looking forward to events can help. Ask your child’s teacher to help you identify strengths your child demonstrates in the classroom setting. If your child struggles with reading and dreads it, help her focus on what a kind friend she has been to a new student. If your child dreads the noisy classroom, help him remember what a great climber he is when he’s on the playground. Equipping your child to recognize a personal strength that comes out at school can help her connect to a side of her personality that she feels proud of.
5) Connect your child with a school counselor, social worker, or psychologist. If your child struggles with separating from home, or is anxious about school, or struggles to enjoy aspects of school, these professionals may help. They can assist your child with processing emotions as they happen, can help with coping strategies in the school setting, and can provide resources to your child’s teacher.
6) Find time to talk to your child, listen, and find a way to connect. When our children complain about school, a part of us wants to fix it. When a child says something like “I don’t like school! It was awful!” we may feel tempted to respond “But you like PE! That part wasn’t awful, right?” While we think we’re helping, this kind of comment can actually make us seem like we’re closed off to an authentic conversation. Instead, ask open-ended, follow-up questions. If your child says “School was awful!” ask “What do you mean?” or “What was awful about it?” Then listen to your child, and try to make little comments that encourage him to keep talking, without trying to offer a solution yet. Allowing our kids to fully describe a problem or experience can strengthen a child-parent relationship, and give parents new insight into their child’s experiences.
7) Figure out if it’s a problem that has a solution, or doesn’t. Sometimes there isn’t a solution, other than needing more time. If you discover that your child is homesick, for example, or misses the summer routine, take a moment to connect. Tell about a time when you felt homesick, or talk about what you miss about the summer. On the other hand, maybe the reason your child dislikes school could be helped with a solution. For example, if your child is having a problem with a peer, or is struggling in a certain subject, listen and gather information, and then come up with solutions that could help.
8) Consider therapy if problems are significant. If your child has significant anxiety or behavioral problems regarding school, set up a consultation with a therapist to determine whether or not your child may need additional support. Your child could be in the midst of a phase, or your child’s behavior and emotions could indicate an underlying problem. Therapy could help.
Returning to school can be a challenge that extends beyond the first few weeks of school. Be patient with your child, listen to her, and partner with professionals at the school if need be. Remember that most challenging situations are outgrown eventually, and that challenges can provide opportunities for you and your child to strengthen your relationship.