Navigating Feelings about Returning to School
Whether it’s your child’s first day of kindergarten or the start of middle school, back-to-school season can bring a range of feelings—from worry to excitement—for the entire family. This year may be more emotional as many families spent the better part of the past two school years at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s important to remember that even in the best of times, it’s normal for children to express feelings of sadness, isolation or stress,” said Tyreca Elliott, from KinderCare Learning Centers’ inclusion services team. “Learning how to address those feelings helps us build self-confidence, resilience and independence. What’s important is the way adults respond to children’s stress. Offering comfort, reassurance and assisting with problem-solving will help children learn and grow from stress in a positive way.”
As an added bonus, Elliott said many of the most effective ways to help children learn to navigate their feelings work just as well with adults. Consider these three tips to help your children (and yourself) manage emotions during the transition back to school.
- Plan ahead. The fear of the unknown can be stressful. Children who aren’t able to clearly articulate their feelings likely won’t be able to make the connection between new, uncertain situations—like going to school and being around other people – and their feelings. Instead, they may become overwhelmed by emotions, which might look like more meltdowns, clinginess or a variety of other behaviors. Talk with your children about how they feel about going back to school ahead of the first day of class. Ask questions to help them determine why they feel particular feelings when they think about school, then work together to solve potential issues. That could mean finding a way to meet your children’s teachers ahead of time, whether virtually or in-person, or practicing introducing themselves to classmates.
- Build a consistent routine. Routines can give children (and adults) a sense of security and structure, which in turn make it easier to cope with big emotions like stress and anxiety. Try to stay consistent, and if you need to make adjustments, talk them through with your children. Be sure to mention key milestones instead of times, particularly if they can’t tell time yet. Make sure your children have opportunities to ask questions about any changes to routines. They may need reassurance before they’re ready to face something new.
- Create special family moments. As important as routine is, it’s just as important to prioritize quality time together. That could mean a vacation or something as simple as Saturday bike rides or Sunday morning pancakes. Plan a family outing or special time together to celebrate completing the first week of school. Family rituals and celebrations can give children and adults something to look forward to. Quality time together also helps families build resiliency.
How Parents Can Help Kids
Build Social Skills
While adults may joke about needing to relearn how to be around others in a post-pandemic world, children can also benefit from a refresh of certain soft skills—especially young children who may not remember pre-pandemic life. Building on these skills can also help children prepare for a successful return to school. In fact, data from Mintel shows parents’ top learning priorities for their children prior to entering grade school are how to play well with others (67%) and good manners (66%).
“Using the remainder of summertime to help your children focus on social skills that may not have gotten much attention this past year is a great idea. Particularly if families were social distancing or in quarantine,” said Taunya Banta, inclusion services manager for KinderCare Learning Centers. “Parents can set their children up for success when school starts again in the fall by helping them work on these soft skills in relaxed settings like family gatherings and on the neighborhood playground.” Consider these ways parents can help their children build social skills.
Naming emotions is an important part of learning how to regulate them. If your children don’t understand what emotions they’re experiencing, they may be confused or upset by how they feel, and that could amplify the feelings and make it more difficult to regulate the emotions.
Talk with your children about your own feelings or the feelings of characters in books to help them learn to identify emotions and appropriate ways to address those feelings. For example, “I’m sad, but I know a hug will help me feel better,” or “I’m mad, and that’s OK. It’s not OK to hit, but I can punch a pillow or stomp my feet to get the feelings out of my body.” As a family, try practicing some simple emotion regulation strategies like deep breathing. To help younger children breathe deep, hold up two fingers and ask them to smell the flower as they inhale (one finger) and blow out the candle as they exhale (the other).
Play gives children an opportunity to freely express their emotions and thoughts, work out feelings and explore relationships in a safe, lighthearted way. If you feel comfortable and can follow health and safety guidelines, visit a playground or set up play dates with other children of similar ages, then take a step back to let the children play together. If your children aren’t ready to play with others, allow them to stay close to you until they feel ready to join the other kids.
Once the children are playing together, observe their interactions and talk with your children (in the moment or later) about how they felt. If they had fun, ask what they enjoyed. If disagreements or awkward moments came up, help your children problem-solve ways they could address those situations next time.
“Most importantly, remember children of all ages have an incredible capacity for resiliency,” Banta said. “Just knowing they have a steady base to return to, a safe place where they’re loved and appreciated for who they are, can give children the courage they need to face the challenge of a new or uncertain social situation with self-confidence and courage.”
Courtesy of Family Features and KinderCare. For more tips to navigate the back-to-school season, visit kindercare.com.