By Eileen Wacker
Well, we have survived the summer with our kids. Enjoying a few activities and camps, visiting a few friends and driving the kids around for movies, play dates and occasional sleepovers. We found cool water for swimming and delicious ice creams to eat. We had a few meals out and visited our favorite cousins.
But as I look out on the horizon, the back to school tidal wave is approaching fast. We have four kids in three different schools, entering 8th, 7th, 4th and 3rd grade. We have great personal stress related to the kids returning to school. But we have learned an important lesson: getting ready for a new school year is one of the biggest transitions our kids make. Going to a new grade in the same building is like getting a new job in the same company. Going to a new grade level in a different set of school buildings is like getting a new job with a new company. This is a big deal for kids and they can experience anxiety.
When we talk to our kids, they are not typically worried about the next batch of teachers - but they say they are reluctant to return to school because of all the homework and hard work. They are, in effect, worried about the expectations and measuring up. Our kids, like most, miss their friends and are excited at the overall idea of going back to school - but memories of late nights doing homework with a parent looking over their shoulder and getting up early can make even the most optimistic child shiver.
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So we’ve decided to try to shape positive expectations using some of these approaches:
1) Send the teacher an email – if possible work with your child and send from him/her. Do not lobby at all in the email, just write a friendly, "I am ready for the new school year and looking forward to being in your class" note. This is especially helpful for a shy child as the teacher will normally respond with a quick email back and the child will experience the first personal connection. Remember, teachers use their own personal time to set up their classrooms so do not stop by to chat unless you are sure they welcome this.
2) Plan out breakfast for the entire first week. The menu should consist of what they will actually eat. Our youngest two want macaroni and cheese and soup for breakfast, so we let them eat it. It is a warm meal (and fairly healthy) and we feel better knowing they have something in their stomachs. Especially with young teens – if they want pop tarts or something they can eat standing up, fine. Using logic about energy and concentration only leads to a battle in our house.
3) For elementary school kids, find one child in his/her new class they are glad about and have a play date with him/her. Children worry a lot that there may be no one they like or that they will have no one to talk to and play with. And, you can emphasize that he/she can still see their “bestie” at recess, lunch and after school.
4) If there are back to school supply lists, make shopping into something fun and let them handle the money. I have my kids go with the babysitter to the school supply store then get ice cream or lunch afterward. They like to pick their own stuff, and they especially like to pay. (And it starts teaching them what things cost!)
5) Think about your child’s personality and strengths and weaknesses. Actually think through a few reasons you are sure this is going to be a great year for him/her. For example, our oldest child struggles to get good test grades. So we emphasize she has amazing organization skills and always gets her homework done.
6) Make an agreement with each child about how you will wake them up. One of our kids likes to get carried to the kitchen and placed in a chair. Another uses an alarm clock while another wants the shades opened up. Being organized and getting up and out on time are big challenges. Don’t forget, all clothes should be laid out the night before and backpacks readied to go.
7) Understand the school’s electronics policy and get your child ready. Since technology is moving so quickly, policies shift quickly to adapt. Do they allow laptops and cell phones? Are the cell phone ringers turned off but texting is allowed? Use something sharp to scratch your child’s name onto any device that leaves your home. If a device gets misplaced, you want it to come back and you want your child to recognize their device on sight and be able to prove it is his or hers.
8) Back to school outfits and first day pomp and circumstance are outdated concepts. The perfectly groomed first-grader wearing sensible new shoes with perfectly cut hair smiling for cameras on the first day is too stressful. We buy items based on when they are on sale not necessarily for back to school. Label their treasured clothes so they’re less likely to end up in the Lost and Found and skip the first day ceremony.
9) End the first week with a celebration! We go to dinner and take small video clips of a funny interview with each child. We ask what their favorite things were the first week and to make an imitation of the teacher. Then we email their clips to them – they think they are so funny and enjoy watching themselves endlessly.
10) We put small notes in their backpacks, sports bag or lunch. We write things like “you are brave” or “have the best day ever.” We ask open-ended questions every day and try not to correct them when they answer. Who do you sit next to in class now? What was lunch like? What’s your new teacher like?
Now that we know what we CAN do, some words on what to avoid – on the first day of your new job, you would not want anyone to yell at you or demand you eat what they have cooked. You would not want anyone to criticize what you are wearing or how your hair looks. You would NOT want to be late. You would not want to enter the new office crying. These must be avoided at all costs. We all yell at our children; but let’s not yell in the morning on that first week of school.
The back to school drama is coming but you can send an excited child to school with optimism for a new year. And, p.s., I do agree with my kids - there is too much homework! I just don’t tell them.
Eileen Wacker lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, with her husband and four children. She is the author of the new children's book, "Pink Hamster and the Birthday Surprise," the fourth installment of the award winning Fujimini Adventure Series. For additional information on the series, please visit www.oncekids.com.