As the school year quickly approaches, it’s time to revisit regular routines and start adjusting your child to going back to school.
Our child and adolescent expert, Kirsten Estrella, LCSW, a Psychotherapist at Lukin Center Psychotherapy has great tips for parents to help reduce anxiety and ease your child back to school.
#1 Help Your Child Ease Into a Sleep Schedule
There is a whole science around sleep, because of the impact it has on learning, development, stress reduction, and emotional regulation. Everything feels more manageable when we’ve had a good night’s rest, and yet with our ever-changing schedules due to COVID-19, most of our sleep routines have gone out the window. It’s time to revisit the sleep routine and to start adjusting your child’s wake-up time and bedtime. This is best done in stages in the weeks leading up to school. We can help children ease into their school routine by shifting their sleep schedule by 20-30 minutes.
#2 Start Reading Back to School Books
Many children experience first-day jitters under typical circumstances, and unfortunately, with COVID-19, things remain to be anything but typical. Thankfully, books can be powerful tools for children because they open the door to difficult conversations, normalize their feelings, help them gain perspective, allow them to process feelings from a safe distance, and engage them in problem-solving.
For books that speak to the first day of school and the many feelings kids might have, I recommend The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! by Mo Willems, School's First Day of School by Adam Rex, The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, and All Are Welcome Here by Alexandra Penfold.
#3 Help Your Child Create Their Own Back to School Book
After reading about how others feel about returning to school, your child may feel ready to make their own book about their feelings. Each page can focus on a different feeling such as something they are excited about, an aspect that makes them worried, something that makes them sad, and one thing that makes them mad when they think about going back to school. At the end of the book, you can illustrate or write a coping plan on how they can problem-solve a problem or manage the feelings for those that are unsolvable.
#4 Role-playing the First Day of School
Role-playing is a technique often used in therapy because it allows children an opportunity to practice being in certain situations and provides a test run on how to react and cope. This in turn, gently exposes children to their fears and helps build their confidence in facing the unknown. Practice playing out the first day of school with your child first playing the role of the teacher and you as the student, and then switch. As you play the role of the student, share some of the feelings and worries your child is also having so that your child can practice being the helper.
#5 Practice the Morning Routine
As much as children love to hate routines, they are vital to helping children feel safe and secure. Routines are a way to create predictable and consistent expectations, and they are more important than ever after all the unpredictability the pandemic has wrought on us. The morning routine may look a lot different from last school year now that many children are starting off the year with in-person school. As a result, it can be helpful to collaborate with your child on creating a morning routine and then playfully practicing it. This can be done by gathering props and creating a relay race among the family. If your child does not do well with friendly competition you can split up the routine into different stations with props and coach/cheerlead your child through as they race the clock.
#6 Create + Practice "Hello" and "Goodbye" Rituals
In addition to all the unknowns that come with the first day of anything, the first day of school can be particularly tough because for children it is also a separation from loved ones. Collaborate with your child in creating a special “goodbye” ritual for going to school and a “hello" ritual for after school to help with this transition. As part of the “goodbye” ritual, they can pack a tangible item (heartstring bracelet, picture of the family, comfort item) in their bag that will help remind them that we are always connected and never alone. This pairs well with The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, as it is one of our favorite books about separation. For a “hello” ritual, a giant hug and a made-up handshake between you and your child can make returns all the more special.
#7 Help Them Feel In Control by Making the Unknown Known
The more we can help children know what to expect the more they feel capable of handling the parts unknown. Drive by or plan a visit to the school to play on the jungle gym prior to the first day to allow your child an opportunity to become familiar with the school route and the school itself. While there, you can practice drop-off along with the “goodbye” and “hello” ritual. Also, if you know who will be in your child’s class and your child is afraid of not knowing anyone, we recommend planning a play date with a classmate to ease their worries.
The Lukin Center wishes all children and parents a delightful return to school!
Kristen Estrella, LCSW, a Psychotherapist at Lukin Center Psychotherapy, earned her B.A. in Psychology from American University and her Master of Social Work from Boston University. During Kristen's studies, she practiced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) under the guidance of Daniel Beck, faculty member at the Beck Institute for CBT. Following graduate school, Kristen pursued her interest in working with children ages 0-7. Kristen's clinical expertise earned her national certifications in Child-Parent Psychotherapy and Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, two premier evidence-based practices that address difficulties between children and parents. She is also nationally certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Kristen's specialization in infant and early childhood mental health led her to become the Child-Parent Psychotherapy supervisor across three children's programs in outpatient mental health.
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