Sweet summer is just about a wrap, which means it’s almost back to school time. Like most transitions, the back to school transition is hard and can come with hard emotions - whether your kiddo is heading off to a brand new school or just a brand new classroom and teacher. Either way, everyone wants to nail this. Both kiddos and parents want to feel supported during this time. So, here are my back to school tips and tricks.
First, let’s take a look at preparation and some actual tools that can be used to prepare you and your kiddo to head back to school. One useful tool is visual aids, which y’all know I’m a huge proponent of. We use visual aids all the time as adults - we have calendars, to-do lists, grocery lists, clocks, post-it notes - so that we don’t have to keep all of the information in our head. So why not provide visual aids for our kiddos? How about using a calendar to show them that this is “today” and this is “the first day of school?” I think it’s best to start showing them the calendar about a week out (though it’s never too late). This can get them prepared for and expecting what is to come.
The next helpful visual aid is called a transition schedule. A transition schedule shows the routine for the day. Since this is visual for kiddos, it incorporates pictures. Use a different picture for all the parts of the routine, and put them in the order that they will happen. For example, a toothbrush for brushing teeth, a shirt for getting dressed, etc. I like to do a separate transition schedule for the morning routine and the after-school routine. Our graphic designer, Tara, made one that is available in the Seed Shop on our website for you to purchase and download, or you can make your own - whatever works for you! These transition schedules can help everyone fall into a nice routine.
If your kiddo is starting a new school or will be in a new classroom, another valuable visual aid is a homemade book of pictures of the classroom, playground, school itself, and even the teacher. You can reach out to the school and ask for pictures of these things, and compile them for your kiddo so they aren’t going into this new place blind. This preps them for what’s to come and gives them something to visualize.
Another thing we can use to help with preparation are social stories. Social stories are stories you make up that give kiddos a toolbox to pull from. These stories are about potential scenarios your kiddo might find themselves in. For example, you may make up a story about someone (don’t use your kiddo’s name in these stories) who was really nervous to go to school on the first day. You can use yourself as the main character of these stories too (again, they can be made up). These stories may also be about how to navigate the hard feelings. You can provide coping strategies for them in these stories too.
The biggest part of preparation is validating their feelings. If they say they are nervous about starting school, rather than saying, “Don’t be nervous! You’re going to have so much fun!” say, “Ugh, I know. It’s so nerve-racking when you do something new and you don’t know what it’s going to be like.” Then, you can tell a social story: “Sometimes I feel nervous too. I remember the first time I started school...” You can also touch on some coping strategies for the hard feelings: “Sometimes when I’m feeling nervous about something new, I like to take some deep breaths. What could you do if you’re feeling nervous when you’re there?”
Once you’ve prepared and now school is starting in real-time, the first thing you need to look at is your support system, because remember, it is your job to be calm for them, not the other way around. If you’re feeling nervous at dropoff, they will feel nervous at drop off. We have mirror neurons - our bodies fire off of each other. If you are feeling nervous, even if you don't say it, your body will fire cortisol, and therefore their body will fire cortisol. So, you’ve got to find your calm so when their body mirrors yours, they are calm too. Do what you need to do to do this - talk to a friend, journal about it, take a self-care day off from work on the first day of school so that it becomes a day you look forward to rather than one you are nervous about. Remember: the people in this school are trained in early childhood education and are there to support your tiny human. Who is in your village that you can reach out to on that day to help support you?
I love mantras and mantras can come in really handy in this situation. For example, when you’re feeling nervous, your mantra might be: “I trust the school they’re going to.” Or “It’s my job to be calm for them.” Or “It’s okay if they feel sad during this.” Whatever it is that will be a good reminder for you and help you with maintaining your calm.
At actual dropoff, you cannot go back in, even if they begin crying. This will send the message to your kiddo that the people who are there are not capable of taking care of them or handling their emotions. Say goodbye (do NOT sneak out) and walk away. Do not hesitate. Again, if you do, your kiddo will get the message that you are not totally confident about this either. Remember, you may feel some hard feelings throughout this, but it’s not your kid’s job to make you feel calm.
When the school day is done, your kiddo is going to recall the things that were hard for them. Keep in mind that your kiddo saying these things does not mean that their whole day was bad. As adults, we have a tendency to do the same thing - we get home from work and can rant about all the things that went wrong, but fail to mention all the things that were great. Our brains are designed that way to keep us safe. Here are two of my favorite questions to ask after school instead of “How was your day?” or “What did you do today?” (These two questions are too broad): One is, “What did you do today that was really kind?” This gets kiddos thinking about kindness and also highlights that you are proud of them when they do kind things. Another question is about gratitude, depending on the age or stage: “What kind thing did someone do for you today?” or “What was one thing that you were grateful for at school today?” (if they are prepared for that level of question). Gratitude practice is one of the two components of happiness (the other is emotion processing). Begin modeling this and adding gratitude practice into your home if you haven’t already.
Lastly, focus on building their strengths, not their weaknesses. School systems are designed to point out what they are not doing great at. Determine and focus on their strengths and how you can help them enhance that skill and serve the world with that skill. Yes, we can support the areas that they struggle with, too, but no one is going to be great at everything and that is okay.
Come on over to our @seed.and.sew community on Instagram and join our Facebook group Seed & Sew: Voices of Your Village to troubleshoot these challenges alongside other villagers. Really want to dive in deep? Join our Tiny Humans, Big Emotions membership to get access to a 2-hour workshop with Alyssa on navigating transitions as well as an upcoming Q&A to troubleshoot.