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Settling back at school

It’s always an upheaval to family life as the first day of another school year looms, and everyone has to make the switch from holiday-mode to school-mode.

We’ve been talking with parents over the last week or so about the best ways to prepare for the start of term - for both children and parents - and here are a few well-tested ideas.

Getting back into the swing of things

Part of the joy of the summer holidays is that we get to relax routines a little, and now it’s time to put some structure back into bedtimes and mealtimes. If going to bed or getting up has slipped considerably, start to shift bedtimes and wake-up times earlier by 20 minutes or so over the week. It works better if you do this in smaller increments, so move the times by 5 minutes at a time. And, it’s helps to remember that the preparation for falling into a good quality restorative sleep starts much earlier in the day! While there’s no magic formula, it makes everything easier when you can strike a good balance between exercise, fresh air, food and drink, stimulation and relaxation.

We recommend ending and starting each day with some Descriptive Praise! You may already be using a Golden Book to read with your child. If not, why not start now? Adopting a positive outlook is one of the most powerful things we can do for our children, and for ourselves.

Getting practical

It has been quite a few weeks since the last school run, and there may be some new twists or additions for this term! No matter how many school runs we have done before, we will all be a little rusty, so it’s worth having a few chats about what needs to be done, when and how.

When we’re talking with our children it’s really important that we hold back on telling and giving advice, and instead focus on asking them what they think and encouraging them to have their own ideas.

Whether you have an individual chat with each child, or a collective Family Meeting, it’s always helpful to get into action and walk the talk afterwards. Rather than get everything ready yourself, include your child in getting their uniform, bags, sports kit, books and other paraphernalia ready. While initially it may take a bit more time, if your goal is for your children to eventually do these things independently, letting them take time to learn and practice will get them there faster!

When we continue to do things for our children that they can do for themselves, it robs them of a valuable opportunity to develop competences and take responsibility. Feeling capable and trusted boosts their self-esteem and resilience, which are just as important (if not more so!) than any academic skills.

Create a written or visual timetable that the whole family can refer to. Even adults sometimes struggle to remember things, or know what day it is, and kids find it even harder. Seeing the days and activities laid out means children can self-refer, giving them another way to become more independent. They no longer need to constantly ask us what’s happening and when.

Written routines, timetables and checklists are particularly helpful for anxious children. It is really tempting to dodge preparations for any anxiety-inducing activities to avoid upsetting an anxious child. We think and hope that if we say nothing until the day itself, we might just get away with it … .but this rarely, if ever, works. In fact, dropping our anxious kids in at the deep end, hoping they will somehow ‘white knuckle’ things, is really unfair. Feeling unprepared and taken by surprise increases a child’s panic response. Even though anxious children find talking about returning to school uncomfortable, it’s important we start the desensitisation process with enough time to help them feel a bit less uncomfortable.

Responding emotionally

Most children have some level of reluctance about returning to school – some express this in words, others in behaviour. Our response to our child’s words and behaviour matters – a lot! Rather than brush their resistance to the new term aside, and insist they’re going to LOVE being back at school, we need to accept how they feel. In a recent article in the New York Times, Lisa Damour refers to this as being an ‘emotional sandbag’. Our job is to soak up and hold our child’s feelings for them, and then help them work their way through the feeling.

Articulate whatever it is you think your child may be feeling. We say “Mm, it sounds to me like you would rather be on holiday forever” or “Maybe you are wondering what school is going to be like after the long break. You prefer it when you know how things are going to be” or “Perhaps going back to school feels quite overwhelming for you”. Saying it out loud does NOT make anything worse! Instead, it makes our child feel soothed because they feel understood.

If your child is particularly anxious about going back to school, make sure you manage your own anxieties and don’t get caught up in their worries. Breathe! Your child really needs to see (and feel!) that you are not scared and that you understand and accept their fears. It can take up 5 or more empathetic responses for your child to start to calm down. Reflect back to your child how they might be feeling, and keep your tone concerned but neutral.

If you’re not sure about the source of their anxiety, you can start to ask some gentle questions … only when they are feeling calmer. You might ask “Are you worried about keeping up in Maths?” or “Is it having a new teacher that makes you feel unsure?” or “Are you nervous about seeing your friends again?”. Children often get nervous about things we wouldn’t necessarily think about – like being in a new classroom, or not knowing who they will sit next to, or where the nearest cloakrooms are, or what the lunch menu might be. It’s quite possible that these are not little things to them.

After an empathetic response, avoid the word BUT. It’s more effective to just stop and wait a second or two … give your child a little space and time to start thinking on their own before you offer your advice or ideas. “I understand you’re worried about going back to school. Making the transition from being at home during the summer holidays takes time. I will be taking you to the gate, and I will be there to pick you up. Let’s practise our special goodbye hug, and think about what special snack you’d like to have in the afternoon.”

Organising some calming activities

Even if your child is full of beans about getting back to the classroom, they will be very tired for at least the first few days - if not weeks. School is a highly stimulating place particularly for sensitive kids and introverts. Expect to see some spill out into behaviour at home, and include some calming activities for the afternoon or evening.

Whether it’s feeding the ducks or listening to music on the way home, playing Lego, completing a jigsaw, colouring or doing some ‘Cosmic Yoga’ ... all these activities take a child out of their Limbic System after a challenging day, and help move them from some level of flight or fight mode towards a more relaxed state of mind and body. You can encourage your child to tell you in detail about their favourite book or TV series, or their specialist topic or hobby. Be prepared to be amazed by how much they know!

If you’re looking to manage the potential upheaval in a positive, effective way, these 4 suggestions will get you going. We’re always excited to hear what works or what you might still be struggling with. We are here to help you throughout your parenting journey, and look forward to seeing you at a course or workshop soon!