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Back to School... Ready or Not?

By Kyle D. Pruett, M.D.

Kirk was starting Year 2 and Abby was heading for Year 4. Their father had taken the day off for back-to-school shopping, having loved this ritual as a child, and he just assumed his children would, likewise. He was shocked when they turned him down. Abby: "I just don't want to get ready yet, Dad. If you think it's so fun, you can go yourself."

What's the Worry?

Your children are balancing a seesaw of emotions right now. If they've had a typical summer, they've grown both physically and emotionally, mastered new skills, thrived from summer's freedom and space, and taken some risks that earned them bruises, self-regard, or both. But as Abby and Kirk vividly demonstrated, feelings also can be mixed about heading back.

They're excited about the new leaf/fresh start, new teacher/new friend combos. But they are also worried that old troubles (both academic and social) will follow them. Academic stuff that doesn't come quite as easily as it seems to for others, social pecking-order scars, and worries that mum and dad will be watching like hawks again. Still, most children keep their balance nicely with the help of childhood's inherent hope and fresh confidence that this will be a good year.

Parents Need to Prepare, Too.

Parents are often surprised by the intensity of what they themselves feel about this mass migration. Bittersweet seems to be the taste of it. We are pleased—even proud—that our children can still scrub up pretty good, and reassured that their optimism still peeks out for some fresh air. Yes, our children are growing like weeds, and they need us less every year at the gate of the playground. Yet as they seek less reassurance from us, we begin to feel increasingly under-employed in a job we've come to feel is the most important thing we'll ever do in this world, and that can sting. We might even feel a twinge of envy as they step into a new chapter of their lives; in comparison, our plans for autumn seem threadbare.

Their worries, added to ours, can be a powerful mix. Typically these just stay worries, and a little worry can be useful. It mobilises our wits, skills, and cunning. Research into motivation and problem-solving abilities tells us that it is not the size or nature of the problem faced by a child, nor her age, gender, or family history that predicts how she'll do when faced with a challenge. The most important single predictor of mastery is the child's belief that she can handle it, whatever it is. So a little worry about whether she can handle school this year is a healthy form of worry, as long as it stays a worry and not an avalanche. And that is exactly where parents come in by:

   1) reinforcing that the child has the "stuff" in her to do okay; and

   2) reminding her of past challenges she's faced and mastered.

The child's own belief that it will work out gets a strong assist from these reassurances.

How Parents Can Ease the Return to School

   * Gradually reinstate the rituals of everyday school life (bedtime, TV schedules, quiet time, self-care) over the week before and the first weeks after the start of school; this is a transition, not a collision.

   * Talk to your children about what they are feeling about heading back, and listen, don't simply wait for your turn at the pulpit. If you have some similar mixed memories of school-return, share them as part of a conversation, not a scripture reading. If not, learn from their experience.

    * Be honest with yourself about turning up the heat under your child's own internal pressure cooker. Talk this out with other adults. It's not your child's problem to fix; he'll have his hands full with his own experience of school.

    * Meet your child's teacher early and often. Research shows that good collaboration between parent and teacher helps children at every turn of this road trip. If you've got ideas or concerns, teachers usually want to hear them sooner rather than later, so they can do something proactive to help.

 

Renew your mind and spirit through some intellectual or creative interest that you've always wanted to do (or get back to). Even in small doses, this can be revitalising. It's also a great thing to model for your children.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and School of Medicine. He is also past president of Zero to Three, the nation's largest think tank, research, and policy center for the first three years of life. His most recent book is Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child.