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Transitioning to Back to School

August 29, 2019
By Jo-Anne Woolner

Tempus fugit*: It’s Time for School?

“How did that happen already?” For 27 years, that has been the question I have asked at the end of every August as my four children headed out the door and back to school or university. It seems the older our children became, time moved faster, and the summers became shorter! Transitioning from laid-back summer schedules to the tightly-wound schedule of a school year with a multitude of after-school activities can be very stressful for children (and their parents).

Some lucky families have children who appear to acclimate quickly to the change in sleep patterns and the demands of the school day, both physically and mentally. They find their rhythms and adapt. When I ask these parents what they do to make this transition so seamless, they shrug and even look embarrassed. “Not much,” they admit. “He/She’s always been like this.”

Likewise, I know some amazing parents whose children struggle to find their rhythm and comfort levels with school. The parents hold firm boundaries, talk to their children about what to expect, feed them good food, and allow extra time in the morning. Despite doing all of these healthy things, some children still have a tough time.

Obviously, how well our children transition is not necessarily a reflection of what we do as parents. Some children, like some adults, are simply more sensitive to change. A clear example is that each of my children adapted completely differently to transitions and school. One was anxious, vocalized her worries, over-planned and stayed nervous for months, though easily completed homework (without reminders) every evening. Another child, who cared only about connecting to her teacher and kept all her worries bottled up, might have a huge tantrum over something seemingly innocuous. Every night, she needed an adult to guide her to the table and place her homework in front of her. Another one was just fine; he liked his friends, loved his teachers (no matter who) and happily went with the flow. Still another child cared only about friendships and after-school activities that drove her to complete her work and over schedule everything (and everybody) else in her life.

Four children. One family. My spouse and I bring our set of skills to the table, and if logic would follow, each of the children would behave the same way. But no.

Parents, please stop blaming yourselves for every bump in the road. Some children simply need a little more care. Besides making sure that everyone is sleeping and that meals are as organized as they can be, below are some tools from our illustrious teachers for how to help move the summer-to-school transition along more smoothly. Use these suggestions gently and with care. Being forceful, angry, or rough doesn’t work with any humans, especially children.

1. Allow your child (and you) to be grumpy. For many children, summer is so much fun and they are very reticent to let the fun go. They want to meet their teachers and see their friends, but they miss the summer lifestyle. Who hasn’t felt this way? As caregivers, go ahead and allow all of these feelings. Resist the urge to cheerlead and try to persuade the child to feel “happy” or “hopeful.” Just listen, hug, and nod along with the complaints.

2. Allow all routines and rules to feel flexible and easy. A routine is good when it is clear and consistent but also flexible enough to withstand change. And while it may sometimes feel as though you are going into battle, you aren’t. It’s school. And almost nothing (not a routine, not schoolwork, not getting dressed, not taking away technology) is worth destroying your relationship with your child. See past the tantrums and be patient with your child. 

3. Don’t be afraid to contact teachers and administrators before school begins. Teachers love a heads-up about children and welcome any tips you have about building a strong connection. This simple connection tool can go a long way toward helping a nervous child feel a little more comfortable with a new experience.

4. Finally, parents: Be sure to get your house in order, both physically and mentally. A little night-before list: Have the lunches packed, have the breakfast table ready, have your own clothes ready to wear for the morning and, as always, have the backpacks and instruments ready by the front door. I also kept extra sweaters and PE clothes in the glove box of my car. Sadly, a cello is not so easy. The 10 minutes spent at night can give enough time to greet your children tenderly in the morning, rather than with commands and demands barked in frustration.

Tempus fugit*! Enjoy your time with your children! Have faith and welcome back to school!

Jo-Anne Woolner is the head of school at Gooden.  She has served the school as interim head of school, director of the Middle School, registrar, and teacher of English, social studies, and Latin after originally joining the school community as a parent of four Gooden students. She received her Bachelor of Arts/Science in English from the University of Calgary (Canada) and Master of Arts in medieval history and languages and Master of Philosophy in Catholic Church history from New York University. In addition to teaching at NYU before moving to California, she has been a presenter at regional independent school conferences and has been a volunteer and board member at several community-based nonprofits in Pasadena.  

*Time flies