The transition back to school can be a tough one for many kids, and it’s not just the first day. When my son started kindergarten last fall, he skipped down the sidewalk, eager to meet his teacher and new classmates. Then there was the second day. He sat down in the middle of the sidewalk, half a block from home, and insisted, “My hair looks doofy!” Eventually, I coaxed him to class. Only the next day, his shoes were uncomfortable. The day after that, his pants didn’t fit.
Sometimes called school refusal or school avoidance, this form of separation anxiety happens most commonly between the ages of five and seven and 11 and 14, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Those are periods when youngsters are dealing with the new challenges of elementary and middle school.
Like my son, children are most likely to refuse to go to school after a period of spending extended time with a parent (i.e., summer vacation) or being under stress, such as moving to a new neighborhood. Here are tips you can use before school’s in session.
Help your child get familiar with school—before the first day. Visit the campus ahead of time, or even better, go to an orientation or welcome-back activity. While it’s tempting to stretch out summer vacation as long as possible, meeting future classmates and teachers or reconnecting with old friends can really help your child feel more comfortable at drop off.
Say it’s okay to feel nervous. Acknowledging your child’s feelings helps him to understand that it’s normal and common to be anxious about going back to school. “Remind your child of another time they had to make a change, such as going to a party where they didn’t know the other kids,” says Dr. Paul Horowitz, a Valencia, California pediatrician. “Remind them of how that turned out to be a good experience.”
Teach your kids words to explain their feelings. Sometimes children just don’t know how to describe what is wrong. “Teach them words like ‘anxiety,’ ‘fear’ and ‘stress.’ Those kinds of words are not words that parents usually talk about with their children,” says Brenda Carrillo, MA/MSW, Student Health and Safety Coordinator for the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
Establish routines, in and out of school. Although it can be fun to stay up late and have unstructured days during vacation, kids need to transition back to normal bedtimes (and healthy diets!) well ahead of the big day. Once school starts, learn about the classroom routines and talk to your child about the activities that are coming up each day (such as show and tell, library visits, or computer lab).
Ask for help from teachers. Don’t be embarrassed if your child resists going to class. Not only are educators used to it, they are trained to help. When Amy Ratcliffe of Palo Alto, California struggled to get her six-year-old daughter to say good-bye at the classroom door, she worked with the teacher. “Instead of having her wait in line, the teacher called her in early and had her help in the classroom. They can recognize a shy kid and engage them,” says Ratcliffe.
Follow your instincts if you need help from a doctor or counselor. Stomacheaches or headaches are common complaints when school starts. “The most important thing to do is to tell your child you understand, that you believe they have the pain,” says Horowitz. “Do the best you can with your parental instinct to determine whether it’s physical or psychological.” If pain persists, it’s time to consult a pediatrician or school counselor.
Within a few weeks, my son not only had adjusted to the new school year but also was excited to go to class. I’m hoping that by following these tips, we can make the transition even easier this fall.
Grace Hwang Lynch is a writer, consultant and mom in the San Francisco Bay area. She blogs about raising an Asian-mixed race family at HapaMama.com.