The following introduction was previously published in The Quarterly magazine’s Fall 2019 edition:
“As much as I loved summer as a kid—and I loved summer—I also got excited about going back to school each fall. I couldn’t wait to get the back-to-school clothes, see my friends again, have a routine, learn new things, and I really got into the restocked school supplies. My sister, on the other hand, never liked going back to school. She rebelled against the schedule, homework, and not getting to wear a swimsuit all day. And for our mom, there were summers she was counting days until school started, as well as summers where she grieved that her long, open-ended days with her girls were over until June.
Each year, kids and parents have a whole host of reactions to summer ending and school starting, but regardless, it’s definitely a transition that can be taxing for all. It can be a challenge, wondering who the new teacher and classmates will be and experiencing the change of schedule. It’s typical for many kids and teens to experience anticipatory worries, exhausting, or difficult with the shift from summer to school. Fortunately, there are all kinds of steps we can take to help them prepare for and navigate this time of year successfully.
Several year ago, I founded The Center for Connection (CFC), an interdisciplinary clinical practice in Pasadena. We’ve collected a whole team of experts who are good at helping children and families not just to survive, but thrive in the various areas of their lives—including the transition back to school. I asked some of our experts to suggest strategies and tools for helping out kids succeed as they transition back to the classroom.”
Back-to-School Tips from our team
1. Courtesy of Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Center for Connection Founder & Executive Director): Make school a fun place to go.
Give your child some time to make positive associations between fun and school. Go 10-15 minutes early to school and do fun things with them in order to help them make these associations. Play on the swings, play a game of Uno or Eye Spy, or some other silly game.
2. Courtesy of Tami Millard, Center for Connection Learning Specialist: Sleep.
Sleep is essential for our child’s ability to weather stress in positive ways and be resilient. The frontal lobe, which helps us regulate our emotions and bodies, make good decisions, be flexible, problem-solve, and more can’t function optimally without good sleep. “Establishing the sleeping/waking routine a few weeks before school is helpful to make the schedule transition minimal.”
3. Courtesy of Christine Triano, Center for Connection Psychotherapist and Director of Mental Health: Create a peaceful morning routine.
Sit down with your kid and create a checklist of what needs to happen to get out in the morning and make a plan to minimize stress. So, things like, pack your backpack and put it by the door at night, shoes and jacket by the front door, fill your water bottle and put it in the fridge, clean out the lunchbox after school and put in snacks for the next day. Based on age, I like shifting the responsibility to the child.
4. Courtesy of Hanna Bogen Novak, Center for Connection Speech and Language Pathologist: Take a seat.
Try using visualization to build strong executive functioning, which is critical to all learning: Encourage your child to make a mind movie of their return to school by using the tool: Take a S.E.A.T. and picture It.
a. Space: Where will you be on your first day back? A new classroom with a new teacher? In a new school? Help your child think about what it looks like to navigate their new learning space.
b. Emotion: How will you feel on your first day? Nervous? Excited? Shy? All of your child's feelings are valid, and sometimes they might be feeling lots of emotions at once. Remind your child that feelings can change minute-to-minute, and day to day, and that's OK.
c. Actions: What will you do on your first day back? Help your child remember that oftentimes the first day of school is all about becoming familiar with new routines, and that it's always OK to ask for help.
d. Time: When do you go back to school and how long will you be there? For children who struggle with certain subjects at school, help them remember that less-preferred activities don't last forever.
You can encourage taking a mindful moment to breathe as you initially take a S.E.A.T. (ideally while actually pausing and sitting), exploring the child's emotions.
5. Courtesy of Dr. Joy Malik-Hasbrook, Clinical Psychologist and Director of Psychoeducational Assessment: Involve the child.
Include the child in finding the solution, respecting her understanding of herself, depending on her age. We can ask the child “What will help you feel brave for this new school year?” and “What do you need?”
6. Courtesy of Tami Millard, Center for Connection Learning Specialist: Build Balance.
Create habits that will serve your children well through each transition ahead, year after year. “Starting in elementary school, through college, invite them to contribute to a family conversation about creating a schedule for a well-balanced life that includes school and activity management, along with physical activity, family time, sleep, down time, and other valued activities.
7. Courtesy of Janel Umfress, Center for Connection Educational Therapist and Learning Specialist): Make playdates.
Setting up times to play and interact with peers who will be in their class helps with those first day connections and desires to get to school. Janel Umfress
8. Courtesy of Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Center for Connection Founder & Executive Director): Bravery symbol.
Give them a temporary tattoo and when you put it on tell them “this is your bravery tattoo.” A simple bracelet works as well. Find the language that works best for them—you might use the words “peace” or “calm” or “courage.”
9. Courtesy of Christine Triano, LCSW, Center for Connection Psychotherapist and Director of Mental Health: See the week.
As for overall time management and communication, use a kitchen whiteboard with a weekly calendar. Fill it in together on Sunday nights, use different color markers for different kids. List appointments, afterschool activities, big due dates, or important family events. Kids like to know what to expect and it builds a sense of agency over their time to start to plan their own calendar. It’s important for them to add things that matter to them too!
10. Courtesy of Hanna Bogen Novak, Center for Connection Speech and Language Pathologist: Teach wonder questions.
So much of the dysregulation about returning to school stems from the nebulous worry about re-integrating into the social dynamic of the classroom” “Use ‘wonder questions’ to show peers you're wondering about them: ‘I wonder what you brought for lunch today.’ Hopefully they’ll get asked a question in return and have a sense that people wonder and care them in return.
11. Courtesy of Dr. Joy Malik-Hasbrook, Clinical Psychologist and Director of Psychoeducational Assessment: Play to practice.
In order to process and create a feeling of familiarity, try different avenues of play--imaginative (play school together), create art about school, write a story about it.
12. Courtesy of Tami Millard, Center for Connection Learning Specialist: Talk about it.
Older kids have social concerns too and if they haven't seen their friends over the summer, they can be angsty about what the social scene will look like moving forward.” Ask them how they’re feeling about this and how they plan to navigate it.
13. Courtesy of Janel Umfress, Center for Connection Educational Therapist and Learning Specialist): Use a conversation starter.
Find books about going back to school and read with your child. Parents can show photos of themselves at the age of their children and reminiscing about their experiences with honest emotions.
14. Courtesy of Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Center for Connection Founder & Executive Director): Fake it till you make it.
When you move your body into different positions, you activate emotions, thoughts, and feelings associated with that posture. Add playfulness while doing this! Ask them to show you what their bodies look like when they feel brave — have them actually strike a physical pose. Standing brave helps us feel brave or take 2-3 minutes to assume a floppy noodle posture, or an octopus, or any other posture that is super floppy and relaxed. Hold it for a couple of minutes.
15. Courtesy of Dr. Joy Malik-Hasbrook, Clinical Psychologist and Director of Psychoeducational Assessment: Start with yourself.
Children are skilled at picking up on our feelings about our child going back to school, so it’s important that we work through and get clear on our own worries or concerns or on triggers from our own school experiences that may be leaking out. Modeling calm confidence, inner compassion, and respect can show our kids that we trust they will do well.
16. Courtesy of Janel Umfress, Center for Connection Educational Therapist and Learning Specialist): Emphasize curiosity as a social skill.
It can be really helpful to give our children tools that assist them in navigating their relationships. Worries are often related to open-ended times, such as recess and lunch, rather than what is happening in the classroom. By emphasizing curiosity as a social skill, we're teaching children about how to enter into a group, and most importantly, how to ask questions. The question can be about permission to enter into play or sit with a group during lunch ("May I?"), but more importantly, we want to teach children to be curious about others by initiating a conversation and keeping the topic and conversation going. When children return from their first day of school having played with a new or old friend, or connecting with someone at lunch, their experience tends to be reported as so much more positive.
17. Courtesy of Christine Triano, LCSW, Center for Connection Psychotherapist and Director of Mental Health: Make mornings fun.
Make a morning playlist for the house or car. Choose songs that boost energy, are fun to sing or dance to or create a less stressed morning.
18. Courtesy of Hanna Bogen Novak, Center for Connection Speech and Language Pathologist: Gratitude.
Calling upon recent research, focusing on and feeling grateful for the more preferred aspects of school can even change the chemistry of the brain in the moment, helping your child feel more regulated.
19. Courtesy of Olivia Martinez-Hauge, Center for Connection Mental Health Therapist:
Our kids are not the only ones who deserve compassion as we venture into a new school year. Back to school is a time of transition for everyone - kids and parents alike. Take a moment and breathe. It really is going to be okay.
Now that you feel better, let's talk homework. Does homework time end in tears? Yours or your child’s? Here are some tips to flip the script on homework time.
1. Teamwork. Align with your child and make them feel that you are tackling homework together. Working with your child during homework time is insurance for a “read to learn” brain. A child who is regulated is scientifically more capable of reviewing and practicing the subject at hand, as well as soaking up your wisdom.
2. Plan. Take a week and experiment with different times to start homework. Then ask your child what time felt best for them and develop a plan together to incorporate homework into the daily schedule.
3. Place. Experiment with different places to do homework in order to optimize your child’s attention and focus. Some kids need music in the background, while others need it quiet. Allow your child to move, stand, or lay on the floor on their stomachs to keep their brains awake and regulated.
Rest assured, you will not be tested on this information.
20. Courtesy of Janel Umfress, Center for Connection Educational Therapist and Learning Specialist): Partner with the Teacher.
If the child has intense worries and fears, identified learning challenges, or if there are parental concerns, it’s important to share the information with the child's teacher so he/she understands how best to support the child from the start.
21. Courtesy of Tami Millard, Center for Connection Learning Specialist: For older kids, Tami Millard:
In thinking about our older kids (middle/high school), it’s important to create habits that will serve them well through each transition ahead, year after year. Invite them to contribute to a family conversation about creating a schedule for a well-balanced life that includes school and activity management, along with physical activity, family time, sufficient sleep, and down time (also known as "fallow time", a period in which you do nothing. To learn about the important of having fallow time, check out this article: You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren't Doing Anything-NY Times).
22. Courtesy of Allie Bowne-Schreiner, Center for Connection Mental Health Therapist: Build in some extra "special time" to connect with each child after the day.
Even 10 minutes of uninterrupted, tech-free, focused time where you follow their lead and connect will do wonders to help them feel seen and important. The after school/evenings can get hectic, but pushing pause to prioritize this focused, quality time puts lots of deposits in our children's emotional buckets.
23. Courtesy of Olivia Martinez-Hauge, Center for Connection Mental Health Therapist: “How was your day?”
I’ve asked my son this question many times. The response I receive is routinely dissatisfying - “good.”
I want more, but how do I help my son open up to me? Here are some tips that have worked for me.
1) Love them first. Sometimes our kids have difficulty downshifting from school to home so this is disarming, less demanding, and makes a soothing connection with them. Starting with “hey I missed you today,” or “I am glad you are home,” can help your child regulate during the transition home.
2) Model for them. Give them a brief run-down of your day. Use new descriptive words and don’t leave out the negative ones. It is helpful for our kids to know emotions – positive and negative and everything in between – are normal.
3) Guide them. Use focused questions instead of open-ended questions. “What was the best part of your day? “What was the hardest part of your day?” “Who did you play with today?” Talking with your child about their day might be best during bath-time, dinner time, or even bed time. Or more simply, whenever the moment presents itself.
4) Involve everyone. Asking everyone in the family about their day promotes connection and further models communicative engagement. It might even be fun to speculate with your child what the family dog did today as a conversation starter.
Note: If your child’s behavior is carefully monitored at school steer away from asking your child if he/she had a good or bad day. Chances are your child has some shame surrounding their behaviors and focusing on positive questions can encourage them to share with you what is happening at school.
24. Courtesy of Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Center for Connection Founder & Executive Director): Name it to tame it.
Create a book with your child by taking photos of your child’s school — classroom, playground, drop-off spot, cafeteria. Print photos out and while assembling them into book form, do the following three things:
1) Facts: Ask your child what she/he does during the day, be specific,
2) Feelings: What is she/he actually feeling during their school day, again be specific; use their words, and
3) Tools/Strategy: Help them come up with ways to manage these feelings. It might be a favorite song that your child could hum or sing to herself when she’s feeling scared. Or, it could be a hug that they could give themselves. Be creative, whatever will help them manage these feelings.
4) And, lastly, say “if you need help, your teacher will help take care of you.”
25. Courtesy of Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Center for Connection Founder & Executive Director): Ask for help.
It’s important to note that, for any age, some kids might need some additional support from a professional. Observe the timing and intensity of your child’s anxiety or reactivity, and be curious about why and what is leading to these feelings. It may be that the demands of the environment are outside of your child’s capacity or that something else is causing a stress response. If what your child is experiencing seems outside of the typical developmental response seek professional help sooner rather than later so that whatever is causing the distress can be looked at more closely.