How Can I Minimize New School Anxiety?
It is inevitable that each Spring, as parents make decisions about their child's school for the coming school year, a certain amount of anxiety can creep into their child's life. For the parent, they are finally able to relax as this next step has been decided. Either they are enrolling their child in the local public school, or they have chosen an independent or parochial school nearby.
For most families, parents and children accept the decision and return to their daily routines. However, for some children, news of a transition to a new school in the Fall, (even though there may have been talk of this move for some time), the finality of leaving their nursery school can sometimes bring free-floating angst.
I remember a scenario in particular where the plan was for a five-year-old to join a kindergarten class at a local school, one that he had visited many times because his older brother attended. This usually happy-go-lucky child began to wet his pants at school every day that Spring, and display other signs of stress. In discussing the situation with the parents, I encouraged them to see their pediatrician to rule out any physical problem or infection.
After the physician's visit, which concluded that there were no problems with his urinary tract, my next hunch was that this might have something to do with the child's moving on in the Fall. I asked the father if there was much talk about the coming school year. He recounted that every morning on their way to nursery school he enthusiastically announced to his child, in a booming voice no less, that it was 101 days (or whatever the number was) until the child went to his new school.
I asked the father to stop doing this for a few days and not to bring up the new school unless the child mentioned it. Also, if the subject came up, the parent should acknowledge that this transition would happen in September, which was a very long time from now, so long that he didn't even need to think about it. I also encouraged the father to say that it was so far from now that the family could just enjoy the wonderful experiences that were happening in the present. He followed my suggestions, and miraculously the toileting issue disappeared, and the child returned to his sunny self.
I recently recounted this and other similar stories to two parents who reached out to me when their children suddenly began acting out. The parents described what appeared to be angry meltdowns and regressive behavior. First, we discussed the typical five-year-old boundary testing. I also inquired about any discussion of transitions to a new school in the Fall that might be taking place. I suspected talk of the new school year was playing a role in this new behavior.
Explaining to parents that young children, even the very bright and precocious ones, have a limited understanding of time. Saying that an event will occur next Fall or at the end of the summer can create confusion and uncertainty. Children may worry that something may happen suddenly or any day now, and that can be stressful. In addition to the anxiety that comes with not knowing when something is going to happen there is a certain unease when adults try to talk children into being excited about something that they are not quite sure about.
In follow-ups with these two families about framing the new school in ways that were appropriate for a young child - that it was a very long time from now and lots of fun and interesting things were going to happen in the meantime - helped alleviate the stress that their children were feeling. Their disruptive behavior began to disappear.
Besides explaining how the discussion of an event that will happen a long time from now can be upsetting, it is vital to remind parents to mirror the emotions that they want to see in their child. That is exactly what these parents did. When the subject of the new school inevitably came up, the parents expressed that they knew their children would like their new teachers and friends and have lots of fun at their new school. They also emphasized that they would stay in touch with their current nursery school friends and teachers.
It is normal for children sometimes to express opposition to new experiences, and we need to accept that with a calm and confident response. Parents need to send a message that it's okay to be nervous about transitions and even okay to say we don't want them to happen. Our message should be, whether in words or with our body language, that we can accept their feelings and, that at the same time, we believe that it will all be okay.
These early experiences with change are important ones; after all, change is what life is all about. Parents play an integral part in helping children cope with the new experiences that come their way. My message isn’t that we shouldn’t talk about future events, but that we keep in mind the limited experiences of a four or five-year-old when we discuss them.