Some children relish the new school year; the new classroom, the new teacher, the new learning and yet for other children the change can be upsetting, overwhelming and even frightening.
Most children will start their summer break having had the opportunity to meet and spend time with their new teacher or in their new school. Time wise this may have been an hour, a half day or even a full day. This experience is usually received well by the child and for most can help to ease any anxiety associated with the up and coming transition.
Change, whether we like it or not, is an essential part of life. Similarly it is both normal and expected to feel feelings of excitement and anxiety about it. In most instances, by first break these feelings will have subsided. The problem only arises when the anxious feeling persists and results in upset, physical symptoms and a desire to avoid school. Although distressing for child and parent, these feelings are a normal, if slightly heighted, reaction to change and thankfully there are skills and strategies that can be adopted to help them pass quicker and feel less frightening:
Fear is normal. To experience anxiety is 100% normal. However it can trigger the fight flight survival response, flooding the body with adrenaline for a situation that does not require it. Shaking, hyperventilating, a need to go the bathroom/escape and nausea can all be the result.
If your child is experiencing any of these feelings, reassure them that they will pass. Explain that their brain is actually trying to help them because it has thought that this was a scary situation and in scary situations we need adrenaline to react to danger quicker.
Empathise that what they are feeling must not be very nice and that you can see how upsetting it is for them. Reassure them that once their brain realises there is no danger it will pass.
Identify the perceived dangers. Children can be incredibly imaginative when it comes to play and the same can be said for when it comes to the unknown.
An especially creative child will have unwilling imagined all kinds of worse case scenarios about returning to school in September and the 6 week break will not have helped! The teacher will be too strict, or dislike them, the work will be too difficult, they will not be able to sit near a close friend, they will be bullied etc etc.
Identifying these fears before September and together finding evidence for and against them happening can be an incredibly powerful strategy. Similarly a back-up plan can also be put in place.
The work will be too hard.
I sometimes found the work in my old class a bit tricky.
I will be learning new things so no one expects me to be able to do it straight away.
When I have found work difficult in the past all I needed to do was ask my teacher/TA and they could help me.
Teachers enjoy helping children to learn and so they won’t be cross if I tell them that I am finding it difficult.
Remember that my best is good enough.
Remember to tell my teacher/TA if I am finding the work difficult and to ask for help.
Remember that I am learning new things and learning takes time.
Prepare Give your child ample opportunity to process the transition by talking about it. What are they looking forward too? Take action on the steps they are excited about. E.g. Getting a new lunch box, choosing some new stationery, making a card for their new teacher.
You may also like to prepare them with a new spelling list or some multiplication table activities but don’t push these if your child is not interested as they can make them feel more apprehensive.
Talk, draw, play! Sometimes it is difficult for a child to explain to you what they are feeling or thinking. This can be particularly true when they are unable to identify what it is that they are feeling fearful of.
Reading or making up a story about a character moving to a new year group or school or role playing situations with toys or drawing the feeling, thought or situation can be a very effective method in helping your child to communicate. Jellyfish cards and Jellyfish Colouring are also effective for this.
Learn relaxation techniques. What does your child do to relax? Play video games? Read? Colour? What else could you introduce? Why not try a Sunday night bubble bath, a story before bed, a massage, some simple yoga positions or some breathing exercises. Once you know what work for your child, devise a relaxation routine. Also identify tools that can be used when they are not at home e.g. hand massage, a simple body scan or counting activity, a deep breathing sequence.
Ask for help: If, after the initial transition, your child continues to struggle with the change do remember that there is a lot of help out there. Speak to the class teacher and make them aware.
Many schools have mentors and trained TAs who are skilled in helping children to cope with the thoughts, feelings and worries that can accompany a new school year.
Talk to your GP, they will be able to put you in touch with mental health professionals who specialize in child wellbeing.
Please note that Lucy and I are not medical professionals. Our suggestions are own and are based on our own experiences of working with children.