For many parents and children, back to school is an exciting time of year filled with enthusiastic conversations about new teachers to meet, after school activities to join and new classmates who will soon become friends. For children who struggle with learning or social issues, who suffer from anxiety, attention difficulties or who have trouble controlling their emotions at school, this time of year can be filled with equal parts hope and dread by children and parents alike. Hoping that this year will be different and dreading that it will not, parents start the school year struggling to convince their child to keep trying and to stay positive, even when the parents may not feel that way themselves. If you are a parent who feels more anxiety than excitement at the beginning of the school year, here are some proactive things to do to help your child transition smoothly back to school and to set them on a path to success in the school year.
With the teacher/school:
- Set up a time to speak with your child’s teacher in the beginning of the school year to help them get to know your child and how to best work with him. Does he respond best to prompts before transitions? Does she need an extra motivator to help her engage in work that is challenging? Does he sometimes not try when a new challenge is presented because he is nervous about giving a wrong answer? Giving the teacher the tools to best work with your child and helping the teacher to better understand and feel empathic towards your child before any issues arise will help set up both parties for success.
- Set up frequent communication with the school. Check in with the teacher via phone or email every other week to make sure everything is going ok and to be on top of any issues that arise. Ask them to let you know about the good things your child is doing at school as well so that you can share this with your child and help to create a positive relationship with their teacher.
- Introduce yourself to anyone else who will be working with your child throughout the year such as the guidance counselor or reading specialist and let them know you are available to speak and are interested in being involved in their work with your child at school.
- Introduce yourself to any of the “specials” teachers (art, gym, music…) who will be working with your child, especially if it is an area where your child normally struggles or excels. If your pre-teen daughter has a difficult time maintaining her emotions during gym class, let the teacher know ahead of time so that he can react appropriately. If your son is particularly gifted or interested in music class, tell the teacher so that she can help make this a part of the day where he will feel good about himself.
With the child:
- Set up a routine. This will help you all get back into “school mode” and will ensure that everyone is getting their work done and is in bed on time. It is also very helpful to have a structured morning routine in order to ensure getting to school on time.
- Instead of asking “How was your day at school?” ask something more specific such as:
- what was the most/least interesting thing you learned today?
- What was something that happened that made you laugh?
- When were you happy/bored today?
- What is the most popular game to play at recess?
- Who had the best lunch today?
- If you had to pick one of your teachers to go have ice cream with, which one would it be? Which one would it definitely NOT be?
Outside of the classroom:
- Sign up your child for an after-school activity that they are interested in doing. This way you know that they will be engaging in an activity that is enjoyable to them and where they can succeed. For children who do not often have moments of success in school this is an important component in ensuring they engage in an activity where they succeed and feel good about themselves. For children who struggle socially in school this can be a place to try and make friends who are not connected to school, another opportunity to make social connections.
- Schedule some time alone with your child where there is no talk of school or homework or teachers. Spend a few minutes each night talking about something they are interested in and that they enjoy talking about. This is an important tool in maintaining a positive relationship between parent and child for those times during the school year when things may get tough with missed homework assignments or calls home from teachers.
While these tips may be helpful for many children and parents, there are also times when outside help is needed. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for many different difficulties that may be getting in the way of a successful school year for you and your child. Finding a clinician who can work with you, your child and your child’s school can be an important element in helping your child have a positive and successful experience at school.
Written by Joshua Rosenthal, PsyD