Who will I play with at recess? Who will I sit next to in class? Will my teacher be nice? These were the top concerns of my fourth grader before starting school this year and his friends agree. It seems the social aspects of school are top of mind for students. As parents, we know that if those social issues are working well, our child’s daily happiness will follow.
In fact, U.S. parents consider emotional well-being of their children a top priority. A recent 2017 poll by Learning Heroes of a diverse range of caregivers showed that the vast majority were more worried than last year about their child’s emotional well-being and academic progress. Three out of five parents were more concerned about their child’s happiness - feeling safe and loved, engaging with friends, and enjoying a happy home life - than about his or her academic performance in school.
Because we, as parents, feel a sense of responsibility for our children’s emotional well-being, it also helps to examine what they are learning in their social and emotional development at each age/stage. Emotional preparedness for school is just as important as the school supplies we carefully purchase, label, and organize to get our children ready for their first day. With that in mind, here are some ideas for ways you can help your child emotionally prepare in these first weeks and months of school. Each of the following ideas, highlights one or two central social and emotional skills children are learning to build at a particular stage.
Preschool and Kindergarten
Separation anxiety is a common theme in the early childhood years for both parents and the children they love. Typically children at this age have spent more time with their primary caregivers than anyone else. Now, they have to leave that safe, secure attachment with you and find a way to play and explore with new people and places.
They may struggle with self-awareness, understanding their complex emotions as they say goodbye to you for a time, relying on a new caregiver, learning the rules of school, and playing with other children. To help your child get ready for this change, spend time in the new environments together. Visit your child’s preschool on a free day. But before you do, you might ask, “How will we prepare to go?” Walk through each of the steps of your morning routine. “Where will we go when we get there?” Find a way to meet the teacher in advance. Get comfortable with the teacher yourself so that you show that you trust this person to care for your child.
Promote self-management skills by talking more frequently about emotions. Use feeling words in your daily conversations to teach your child an emotional vocabulary. This will help him when he’s upset and struggling to communicate. Instead of feeling frustrated and misunderstood, he’ll have practice articulating his emotions. Children at this age need a lot of repeated practice identifying their own feelings and those of others in order to help them manage themselves in increasingly complex social situations.
As your child enters first, second, and third grades, she will be regularly exercising her relationship skills. She’ll need to get along with multiple teachers, make new friends, and collaborate on school projects. A child’s relationships in early elementary school can become a powerful motivator that influence her ability to cooperate in the morning before school, her mood after school, and even her academic performance in school.
Children’s budding social awareness awakens more and more each year along with the need for peer approval. You’ll notice the same child that once fearlessly paired plaid pants with a striped clashing shirt now avoids anything he might say, wear, or do that could be fodder for getting picked on by peers.
Play to practice simple conversation starters. You can assist your child in preparing for social challenges by playing out conversations. Use action figures, stuffed friends, or dolls.. Make introductions as short and simple as possible. “Hi, I’m Darth Vader. What’s your name?” Also, consider the times of day when social interactions may be tense for your child, such as lunch time or recess. Then, play out how she might engage with another in those specific circumstances. You might suggest, “Let’s play ‘recess.’ What if some teddy bears are playing together and your bear wants to play. What could she do? What could she say?”
Late Elementary and Middle School
Children in the late elementary years require new coping tools to assist them in their ability to manage emotions and deal with social anxiety. Fourth grade seems to usher in a whole new level of social and academic pressures. While they have learned the basic foundations of reading, writing, and arithmetic, at this age children are expected to increase their academic aptitude. In addition, social differences are not only noticed, children are calling attention to them and at times, in unkind terms. All of this pressure can mount in these still young people who are managing perceptions as much as they are their school work.
Practice taking moments to calm down. Try out deep breathing together. Whether it’s trying to match each other’s rhythmic slow breathing or pretending your breathing is a gentle ocean wave, you can help your child learn how to self-soothe in any trying moment through the power of slowing his breath. Also, practice taking brain breaks. When your daughter gets visibly frustrated with her homework, encourage her to walk away. Get some fresh air. Grab a snack. Take a moment to breathe away from the work. Then, return with a fresh perspective. After doing this, you might coach, “When you get frustrated with your work at school, what could you do to take a brain break?” Think together about some ideas she could use in a more restricted setting so that she’s ready.
Practice simple responses to unkind words or actions. Even if your own child has not yet been picked on, it’s likely she’s witnessed others that have been. How can she respond in any situation when she’s faced with an insult? Keep it short and memorable such as, “Stop, you know you are wrong” or “That’s hurtful.” Coach her to make her statement and walk away. Rehearsing exactly what your child can do in these circumstances can give her confidence that she knows what to do when she has to face mean words or actions.
While teenagers are craving independence and taking greater risks, they will require practice in developing their responsible decision-making skills. When faced with peer pressure to engage in substance use or sexual activity when you are not present to guide them, you’ll want to have given them numerous chances to exercise their ability to make considered choices. Here are two specific ways in which you can create those chances.
Chat about social and societal news for the purpose of examining ethical dilemmas and cause and effect. Keep in mind that the young brain does not develop its full logical high order thinking skills until the mid-twenties. Meanwhile, your teenager is making big decisions like lying to parents, skipping school, or trying cigarettes. Often, those decisions are made while under the influence of peer pressure. Teens don’t want to hear lectures but ARE endlessly curious about social challenges. Take advantage of that curiosity and explore any and all circumstances in your neighborhood, community, or national news while riding in the car or at dinnertime to ask good questions. “Why do you think she chose to run away from home? What other choices do you think she had?” These exploratory questions - without your pre-determined answers - can prompt moral thinking. Teens can wrestle with where they draw their own boundary lines. These conversations offer critical thinking rehearsals for the times when they will face decisions on their own.
Offer limited choices, big and small. There are a million choices we make each day as parents. And there are just as many our teens can make for themselves if we look for those chances. However, they should be limited to ideally, two choices so that they focus on making a thoughtful choice and don’t become overwhelmed with endless options. And both choices always need to be acceptable to parents so that no matter which is chosen, either is fine. For example, you can get your homework done right after school or after dinnertime. Or you could choose to go away with us for the weekend or stay with your friend’s family. When offering choices, help your teen think ahead. In the weekend example, you might say, “On Monday after the weekend is over, will you be so glad that you choose to go out of town with us or stay with Mary’s family? Which? And why?” prompting foresight.
A whole new dimension of social and emotional skills are required as your student goes to college. They’ll be expected to manage themselves as adults for the first time and may be living apart from your family. Though they’ll need (and hopefully you’ll have offered) practice in all areas of social and emotional competence, there are a few that will ease the burden of the initial transition.
First, since going to college represents a major life transition for both the student and the parents, self-awareness will be important in managing the stressors that come with it. Make yourself available when your son or daughter needs to talk or is highly emotional. Listen with an open mind and heart. Her concerns, though likely not the end of the world, may feel that grave to your daughter. Offer empathy, understanding, and reflect back feelings you are observing. “It seems like you are frustrated by your roommate situation. Do you want to tell me more?” New college students are likely to encounter a wide mix of emotions along with their new experiences so your openness to conversation and reflective listening will help them make sense of their new circumstances.
In addition to listening and reflecting back feelings, you can also provide helpful perspectives and a reframing of problems to paint a wider view of a situation. Because transitions like moving to a new place on your own for the first time can seem all-consuming, an emerging young adult may feel overwhelmed with their problems, losing their abilities as a constructive problem-solver. You, as a trusted support, can provide invaluable guidance by offering multiple alternative ways of looking at a problem in order to help your son or daughter gain perspective and make positive choices.
There’s no doubt that the start of school at each age and stage elicits a range of emotions. Parents who expect them in themselves and in their children will show greater patience. They will take steps to manage themselves and facilitate skilled thinking and feelings’ management with their children. Instead of bearing down and getting through the changes individually, families can navigate the transition together with love, care and sensitivity. What emotional supplies do your family members need in order to prepare for back-to-school time?