As an educational therapist who works with students with different learning concerns, I often use books to help children identify their worries around new learning situations -- new teachers, schools, expectations -- and see that they are not the only ones with these feelings. Books that can be helpful for younger children (preschool to second grade) include: David Goes to School, First Day Jitters, and Scaredy Squirrel. For mid- to late-elementary school students, books such as Miss Malarky Doesn’t Live in Room 10 and There’s A Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom are fun choices. Middle schoolers may enjoy the How to Survive Middle School series from Scholastic. I am a firm believer that picture books can be enjoyed by children and adults of all ages and would recommend Oh the Places You Will Go for everyone.
After you identify your child’s concerns about the start of the new school year, turn this information into a chart or list to help turn free-floating fears into manageable concerns. For younger children, simple drawings can be used to illustrate their ideas. Add a column to your list or table for actions to take to start the school year off on the right foot.
Here are some suggestions that might address concerns on your list.
Shift to a fall schedule. If you and your family have been on a summer schedule, bring more structure into your days and nights as the start of school gets closer. Reinstitute “early to bed and early to rise.” Write important school dates on the family calendar.
Phase in school-like activities. Build in quiet time for listening to books and recorded stories and/or reading on one’s own. Review math facts. Have your child teach you a lesson on something they learned last year. Create opportunities to do activities with others and to work independently. For example, involve your child in a cooking, gardening, or craft project. If you are really feeling ambitious, have your child either dictate or write a paragraph or two about the experience. To get into the homework habit, create a homework plan with your child which includes when and where homework will be completed. Start with the first homework assignment; don’t wait until after Fiesta week, traditionally a date that marks the end of summer for most of us Santa Feans!
Get familiar with your new school. If your child is going to a new school, drive by the building a number of times this summer. It may be possible to ask for permission to walk around the school and visit areas, both inside and outside, where your child will spend time. If your child is transitioning from one area of their same school to another area, say from kindergarten to first grade, downstairs to upstairs, or elementary to middle, it may be helpful to walk the halls of this year’s classrooms together before school starts. Some children may need more than one visit “to learn” the new building.
Take photos of the new place and people. Many children benefit from having a photo album of a new school setting to review during the first few weeks of the school year. Ask for permission to take photographs of the front of the school, the front office, the cafeteria, your child’s classroom, parent pick-up and bus pick-up/drop-off areas, the gym, the playground, and any other areas of the school that your child will often visit. Then either review these photos on a phone or camera with your child, or print the pictures with labels and make a “new school year” book. If the school and staff agree, take pictures of staff who will be working with your child. Don’t forget to take pictures of the office staff and principal.
Rehearse new situations. Another strategy that may help children is to rehearse a few situations that may arise during the first days of the new school year, such as lining up for lunch, being in a class with none of their friends, introducing themselves in class, figuring out what to do at recess (watch what the other kids are doing), etc. Remember to keep role-play fun, and try to place yourself in your child’s shoes. Don't teach formal adult language for introductions to peers; use kid language.
Look for help. If your child is feeling especially anxious, ask your school for assistance. Identify, with the help of your school, key people such as the counselor or nurse that can be safe “go to” people, and make sure that your child knows who these people are. Ask your child’s teacher to seat him or her near helpful and kind peers. And if your child is new to the school, request a “new students” group be formed and class “buddies” be provided so that your child can learn the culture of the school. When all students are new, such as with kindergartners, the teacher will provide an orientation for all the students.
With some planning, preparation, and continued parent involvement, your child can make a smooth transition to a wonderful new school year.
Dona A Durham, Ph.D. is a Professional Level Educational Therapist (ET/P) with a private practice in Santa Fe. Look for her article on helping special-ed students get the support and services they need, in the Fall 2016 Tumbleweeds coming August 17.