Children are going back to school soon and, for many, it may be a time of change. Maybe it is your child’s first year of school, their first year of high school, or maybe they’re switching schools.
Whatever the change, it will bring many new opportunities for friendships and learning. But is your child ready?
Some children are born more resilient to change, but others can be sensitive to the world around them and need more support to manage.
For every child, a new school or new stage in their schooling is an opportunity to develop or boost their skills in managing transitions. Making this transition smooth is not about removing the obstacle itself, but instead giving the child skills to manage the change.
Children feel worried or nervous in a new situation if they think something bad might happen or if they feel they won’t be able to handle the situation. The best way to learn a negative outcome is not as likely as predicted is to practise facing the situation. Practising new or challenging situations provides opportunities for your child to learn to handle new situations. This is best done in a gradual, step-by-step way.
To help prepare your child for change, consider what it is they might find challenging. Think about opportunities you can create before school starts to practice this specific situation. Is it how to catch the bus independently? Is it making friends? Or is it handling uncertainty?
Work with your child to think about ways you can practise these situations in the holiday period to provide them with more information that show things usually turn out OK – and, more often than not, they can handle it.
The first year of school
If this is your child’s first year of school, use the time in the holidays to practise school-relevant tasks like being away from you, asking questions, independent toileting, sitting still, or following instructions.
Early learning environments, like preschool, have already prepared your child for many of these tasks. But if you are concerned your child is still not ready, then practise these situations in a gradual step-by-step way.
Encourage your child’s independence over the next few weeks by giving them opportunities to do more for themselves.
Visiting the new school ahead of the start date can be a useful way of preparing for the new school. But as this is not always possible, there are many other ways you can practise new situations over the holidays, like attending holiday programs, doing a new activity, or gently encouraging your child to move outside their comfort zone.
Ask your child to think about other times they have been in a new environment and made friends. Remembering past positive situations might help them to better predict what is most likely to happen on day one at school.
It is easy to fall into the trap of providing too much reassurance, so help your child to calm themselves without having to rely on you to do it for them.
First year of high school
The first year of high-school will, for many students, bring new routines and structure. This may include different bell times, multiple teachers, new transport, and new expectations.
Orientation days are a good way to find out more about the school. Practise any new tasks, like catching the bus, before school starts to reduce anxiety about this on the first day.
Some may need to practise getting used to unpredictable routines or not knowing every detail beforehand.
Final year of school
If your child doesn’t have the stress management and study skills to manage the increased workload of the final years of high school, there are several programs and services available which can help them improve.
It may also be valuable to have an honest conversation with them about what they need from you and how you can best support them in their final year of school. Children of parents who provide supportive and encouraging environments actually perform better than children whose parents pressure them to perform.
Given most students will report feeling stressed in the final year due to high-stakes testing, consider reducing additional stresses like moving or other big changes in this year.
Are first-day jitters normal?
Fears and worries are common in childhood and adolescence.
For some children, this worry may become unmanageable and might prevent the child from attending school, making friends, sleeping or from achieving their best at school.
If you think your child’s worry is affecting their life, there are many evidence based programs and services effective in reducing anxiety and worry like the Centre for Emotional Health or Brave Online.
Experiencing significant problems with anxiety in childhood does increase the young person’s risk of developing other mental health difficulties throughout life. It is important to reach out for evidence-based help such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
Are you ready?
Children look to their parents and caregivers to know when they should be worried or fearful in a situation. If you are communicating messages, subtle or overt, that the new school is a scary situation, then this will serve to increase the child’s first-day jitters.
It is important to normalise your child’s feelings of anxiety on the first day, but it is also important to communicate the message that you think they can handle it.
Milestones in your child’s life are significant. Think ahead of time what strategies you might need to put in place (like visiting a supportive friend after the first drop-off) so you can provide the best “coping” role model for your child.
This is not about you being fearless – but about showing your child effective ways to manage challenging situations.
Authors: Jennie Hudson, Professor in Psychology, Macquarie University