Whether your little one suffers from separation anxiety at drop-off, or struggles with the changes a new school year brings, our experts’ tried-and-tested strategies will help set your child, and you, up for a successful year. By Tammy Jacks
While it’s normal for your child to feel anxious about starting school, you’re not alone if you’re feeling stressed too. According to a recent family poll conducted by the childcare centre, Kiddie Academy, 63% of moms reported feeling anxious and having the hardest time coping with their children’s first day of school.
In many cases, it’s not just the first day, but the first term (which is around 8 weeks) that can be stressful. This is because there’s so many new things to get used to – new teachers, classrooms, friends, routines, as well as changes and adjustments for both you and your child.
The good news is there’s plenty you can do to settle those nerves and embrace the school year. Here’s what teacher-moms do to cope better from the get-go:
Set the right tone for your child
“It takes around 6 weeks to fully settle into a new routine,” explains Johannesburg-based educational psychologist and mom,” Lucy Robinson. “It’s also important to understand that during this time, your child will regulate herself based on your behaviour. She will use you as a guide as to how she should be feeling.” She adds that a child can always sense when you’re anxious, stressed or worried – which might set her off too, so try to stay calm and positive as far as possible.
Mother, teacher and education lecturer, Simone Tonkin agrees. “As the primary caregivers, you and your partner set the tone for your child, so I always encourage parents to build a sense of excitement around the first day of school (and the first term) and to remind your child of all the fun things she’ll learn and experience. Focus on all the positives and remind your child that she’s safe.”
On the way to school, play fun songs or games to reduce anxiety, Simone suggests. The calmer you are, the calmer your child will be!
The key here, adds Lucy, is to ensure your child’s sensory system is in an optimal state for learning and not in a heightened, tense state before she even arrives at school. The truth is that the classroom is filled with noise, activity and sensory input (music, talking, singing, playing). It can be overwhelming for your child, especially if she’s anxious to begin with. But, when you set right note before school, you’re helping your child cope better with what lies ahead for the day.
Encourage open communication
It’s never too early or late to talk to your child about her feelings, especially around school and her worries, says Lucy. A good time to do this is at dinner time, bath time or bedtime. Johannesburg-based Grade 2 teacher and mom, Nicole Fuller says, “There are many wonderful bedtime books that talk about feelings and help children express their worries and concerns. Owl Babies, for example, is a great book to help kids deal with separation anxiety.” Available from Takealot.com fro R119.
Open communication also means talking to your child’s teacher about her likes, dislikes, favourite things to do. There’s no harm in checking in with your child’s teacher once a week to find out how she’s doing.
Preparation is key
Lucy believes that rushing in the mornings, missing essential items (such as stationery or something for “Show And Tell”), being late for school, or not knowing what to expect when they arrive in the classroom are all anxiety-inducing factors for kids. “Try to eliminate these triggers by using a daily or weekly checklist to pack your child’s bags. And, to help save time in the mornings, prepare lunchboxes and pack school bags the night before,” advises Lucy.
“Depending on your child’s age, you could involve her in preparing her lunchbox and packing her bag,” says Simone. “This will help to foster things like independence. It’ll also help your child learn what to expect from each day. For instance, you might pack ballet clothes every Tuesday and an extra snack on Fridays.
Nicole says, “I’ve seen some parents paste a cute colour-coded schedule in their kid’s diaries with highlighted areas for different sports and extra mural activities for the week ahead.” This helps children understand what their day entails, which can help them feel safe and grounded.
Encourage more sleep
Research shows that school-age children need at least 9-11 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night to help them thrive at school, and cope with all the changes a new year brings, says Lucy.
You simply cannot underestimate the importance of sleep. And, if your little one is still taking naps at, or after school, make sure she gets those, she adds.
To help promote better sleep, try these tips:
- Reduce or eliminate foods and drinks containing sugar a few hours before bed and make sure you eat dinner early enough in the evening.
- Eliminate blue light from an iPad, TV screen or phone as this interferes with melatonin production.
- Avoid talking about or reading anything scary to your child before bed.
- Play rough and tumble games an hour or so before bed. This helps to release excess energy and calm the nervous system.
- Establish a set bedtime and wake up time. This will help to set your child’s internal clock/circadian rhythms.
TOP TIP: Establishing a solid daily routine will also help your child sleep better at night. This includes a morning routine with a good breakfast, an afternoon routine with time for free play and an evening routine with bath time, story time and bedtime. “There’s no doubt that children of all ages thrive in routine. I’ve seen it with my own 2-year-old daughter, as well as my grade 2 pupils,” adds Nicole.
Sow seeds of, “You’ve got this!”
When you talk to your children about the upcoming school year, it’s important to use positive affirmations, says Lucy. Try saying things like, “I’m so proud of you for…” or “Remember how you managed to cope with xyz last year…”
Reinforcing past successes is a great way to help your child feel calm and in control. It also promotes a strong self-esteem as your child will learn to believe in herself and her abilities regardless of the challenges of school.
Help your child make friends
While your child doesn’t have to have a large group of friends, developing a few key friendships is a really good way to help her thrive at school, especially in the first term, says Simone.
“When my twin girls were little, I used to arrange playdates with a few friends from school for a Friday afternoon. I’d ask my girls who they liked to play with at school, and then arrange for those children to come to our house. Having the play dates at my house also meant that my girls felt confident and safe to play with their friends, and this helped to establish a bond at school.”
Remind your child that you love her!
Encouraging notes or special treats from you or your partner, left in your child’s lunchbox is a small gesture, but it goes a long way towards helping your child feel safe and loved at school. A loving family at home provides the base your child needs to go out and explore the world, says Simone.
“And to celebrate courage and bravery, you could always take your child for a special treat at the end of the first day or week as a reward,” suggests Lucy.
More about the expert:
Lucy Robinson is an educational psychologist in private practice in the north of Johannesburg. She has a special interest in anxiety and maternal mental health and she has worked extensively with children and adolescents. Find out more about Lucy Robinson here
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day. Learn more about Xanet Scheepers.