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  • How to handle back-to-school transitions & separation anxiety

    Whether your child is starting school for the first time or is just one of those kids who struggles with new routines, here are some suggestions for how to make the back-to-school transition smoother.


    As a kid, I loved buying supplies for the new school year, picking out my outfit for the first day and wondering what my new teacher would be like. Not all children feel the same way as I did (including my own) and many start feeling worried about the transition. Whether your child is starting school for the first time or is just one of those kids who struggles with new routines, here are some suggestions for how to make the back-to-school transition go a little more smoothly.

    Talk about it. Bring up a conversation about starting school and hear their concerns. As parents, we often want to fix the problem for them so we can make them feel better (and ourselves, too). But kids sometimes just want to know someone is listening to what they have to say. If they are having a hard time opening up, remark about an observation you have made to get them to talk (“I noticed that you keep changing the subject when we mention school. Is there anything you want to talk about?”). Or, ask them a question that might get to the cause of what is bothering them, such as worries about who they will sit with at lunch, or concerns as to what their teacher might be like. Lastly, let them know it is OK to feel a mixture of feelings such as being excited, nervous, curious, scared, etc., about starting school. It’s a way to validate that what they are going through is normal.

    Plan a visit. For my son, we did a lot of drive-bys of the school so the building became a familiar sight. Depending on the grade level, this could also mean going to the school playground to become acquainted (or reacquainted) and learn what door they will be entering the building. For students entering middle or high school, most schools have a new student orientation. If they don’t, considering asking the principal/counselor to see if you can get a tour of the building beforehand.

    Read about it. If your child is going to preschool or kindergarten, reading a book about school anxiety is a great way to help manage their fears. Some of our family’s favorites are The Kissing Hand, I Am Too Absolutely Small for School, and It’s Hard to Be Five. For older elementary school kids, other books about general anxiety such as Wilma Jean the Worry Machine or What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety could be helpful.

    Plan for it. For younger kids going full-day for the first time, having a photo in their backpack of your family could ease the transition (just knowing it was there was helpful for my son). For older kids, help them find ways to get together with those friends they didn’t get to see over summer break, so they are excited about starting the new school year together. If you know your child has a difficult time with transitions, send the teacher an email a few days before school starts to let her know.

    Despite its challenges, I love this stressful, fun, playful age. I hope these techniques will help bring you a little more joy through the meltdown phase. They do say it’s a phase, right?

    Julie Safranski, MSW, LCSW has a background as a school social worker and is a licensed therapist who enjoys working with children, adolescents and their families. She lives in Albany Park with her husband and son.

    This article previously appeared in the NPN member newsletter, Parent to Parent. Learn about other member benefits.

    Related articles:

    A preschool teacher's tips for easing separation anxiety

    The ABCs of applying to CPS preschools

    Focus on mistakes to help your child learn

    The NPN blog gives voice to our members' thoughts about parenting in the city, and the views expressed don't necessarily reflect our own. Want to write for us? Email laura@npnparents.org with your topic ideas.


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