Reflections on Starting School Again

2018 Back to School-Small

Julie Nemeth, Ph.D., is a mother and therapist who lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two sons. As a licensed psychologist, she maintains a private practice in Center City, specializing in fertility issues, pregnancy, and parenting, as well as healing from eating concerns and childhood trauma.

Last night I attended my son’s classroom for Back to School Night. While making my way to across the classroom to the rows of seats arranged for parents, I was struck by the number of times I heard parents asking one another, “how’s it going?” As a mother, I know this question well. I can recognize the mommy-shorthand for what “it” means – how is your child handling being at school this year?  How is it for him or her to be in a new classroom, with a new routine, new teachers, and new kids? Without time to fully talk about the many ways our kids were adjusting (or not adjusting) to the challenges of the beginning the year, we all settled into our chairs to hear the teacher’s presentations.

Following the evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about the “it” and what if we changed the question.  Rather than asking how our kids are handling the newness of the year, how about if we thought about how they move through transitions in general? Opening ourselves up, as parents, to thinking about the beginning of school as a transition allows us a new perspective and a framework for understanding this often difficult time in our children’s lives. In fact, by remembering four basic characteristics of transitions (listed below), perhaps we can move through this time of year with our kids with greater ease.   

Transitions are hard for parents and kids. For parents, the beginning of school can be stressful.  Unconsciously, our own memories of beginning school linger and mix with our feelings about our children’s growing independence. We remember our own excitement about beginning the school year or our own anxiety and fear – or both. And we think about how our child – or our children – are growing up.  And so often we have very mixed feelings about their growing up. We may feel that they are growing away from us. We may mourn the loss of them as babies and their adorable baby selves (forgetting how much work that was!) and their unquestioning love for us. We may fear what may happen at school when we are not there to protect them.

Then, we also have the current reality: we have to deal with all the logistics of the day – figuring out the new routines of making lunch, arranging transportation to and from school, and organizing after-care for each child.   

Within this context, it is easy to understand the incredible bravery and risk it takes for each parent AND each child to begin the year – children sense their parent’s excitement and anxiety, navigate their own feelings about school and budding independence, as well thinking about having to encounter new routines, teachers and classmates.  

Naming how hard transitions can be can help our kids (and ourselves) to cultivate acceptance and patience in most difficult moments.  I think of this often with my five-year-old who just began school. Most days, at some point, after school, he has a full melt-down. For him, even at the slightest mishap at home (like putting his food on the wrong part of his plate!!) will spark intense frustrations and tears.  Reminding myself that he’s going through a big transition helps me to maintain patience and find ways to help him through the difficult moments.

Transitions usually take longer than we expect or want.   It is easy as a parent to focus on the awe, joy, anticipation, and excitement involved in the first few days of school. It’s common to expect everyone to settle in within the first couple weeks. However, it may be more helpful to think about this transition as one that continues well into mid-fall.  Teachers know this secret well – they know learning a new daily and weekly routine, for kids, can take many weeks. They also know that giving kids a sense of consistency and predictability in their school day helps them feel safe and in turn, take more intellectual and social risks.

We can help our kids adjust to the new fall routines at home too! Family meetings are a really helpful way to talk, as a family, about the changes in schedule and routines.  They can be held before school begins to outline what is expected before and after school (i.e., what are the wake up times, breakfast choices, what after-school activities are scheduled, who will be a dinner each night etc.). Family meetings can also be useful once school begins, particularly offering a time to review what is working and what needs to be revised.   

If you have never held a family meeting, it can be daunting to imagine how to organize it and get your kids to buy into the process. Some excellent resources on how family meetings can help and how to run your own are the following:  (1) The Rhea Lalla’s podcast Conscious Parenting For Confident & Successful Kids (#005); (2) Dr. Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline (Chapter 9); and (3) Dr. Laura Markham’s Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings (Chapter 8).   

Transitions are easier when we practice family self-care.   In 2017, the Harvard Family Research Project noted that for many kids, family relationships are often the one constant across many changes at the beginning of the school year.  The family can be the stabilizing force in their shifting world.

Preserving time for kids to connect with us is essential in times of change, even if it is through a short conversation about their day. Building upon the brilliant and creative work of my kid’s kindergarten teaching team, we use a grounding exercise called, “Rose/Thorn/Bud” to share our days with each other. In essence, each family member recalls three moments in our day  – one that is joyous (Rose), one that felt bad in some way (Thorn), and something we look forward to in the near future (Bud). The beauty of the exercise is that it can be used in any time frame – at the end of the day (at dinner or before bed), week (on Friday night) or weekend (on Sunday night). Ultimately, it can be a meaningful way to let kids tell us (and share with them) about our lives.   

Family self-care can take many forms and there is no one right way to go about it.  For some families, it can mean planning activities together on the weekend. Alternatively, it can mean making a family commitment to not overschedule outside the home.  In essence, family self-care is as diverse as families themselves. The important part is being intentional about it and modeling for our children the importance of take care of our bodies and minds during times of change.    

Transitions are a time of growth.  Cultivating a “growth mindset” during transitions can be very useful.  This perspective, put forth by psychologist Dr. Carol Dwek in the bestselling book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” values practice and persistence and views mistakes as important opportunities to learn and grow.  Entering the school year with this mindset can be very comforting for kids. It means that we, as a family, are going to practice the new routines together and that, with persistence, we will make it through the transition. Furthermore, we will learn the most from the mistakes we make.  For example, getting to school late is an important time to model problem solving skills. Asking kids to help come up with a better solution to getting to school on time – and getting them to look at why they didn’t get to school on time – what went wrong and how the morning routine needs to be changed to get to school earlier – allows them to know that they can learn from what goes wrong, sometimes even  more than what goes right

I owe my appreciation for a growth mindset to the experienced educator and child development expert, Carlye Nelson-Major.  Most notably, she helped me understand the incredible “power of yet” – simply adding the word “yet” to our vocabulary when talking with kids can be empowering and allow them to know we believe in them. For example, after a particularly difficult evening in the second week of school (it included several conflicts between my two sons and at least one occasion of my yelling), I told both my kids that we were all tired. I continued to say that we had not yet found a way to get everyone to bed earlier and get full night’s sleep (we all went to bed later during the summer months).  Without having a set solution, I was able to convey that we would, with time, figure it out. And, without saying it directly, I let them know that I believed in myself and our family to make it through the change.  

In essence, over the course of their tenure as students, our children will experience at least 13 years of transitioning from summer to the school year.  Using each year to build their resiliency and ability to tolerate transition and change can be gifts they will use throughout their lives!

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