Families

Helping your child cope with new experiences at school

Like so many new starts in life, what I prepared myself to experience on the first day of school turned out to be very different in reality.

I assumed my new classroom would look like the one I had in kindergarten. But instead of open spaces and toys, I found desks lined up in rows and a book sitting on each one of them. I had several more surprises that day and many more throughout the year.

Surprises, big and small, are inevitable in our children's lives. Some are happy and some are challenging. Little surprises are things like forgetting their lunch or missing a homework assignment. Stressful surprises are things like being betrayed by a friend or moving to a new city at the beginning of the school year.

Of course, not all children react the same way. One child might have an intense reaction to separating from their parent while another child will be perfectly calm when accidently locked in a bathroom.

A child's developmental age, temperament and past experiences will determine how they respond to unexpected situations and the long-term impact the experience will have on them. I recall an embarrassing situation I had in first grade. The event imprinted a patterned response on my six-year-old brain that still gets triggered today.

Parents can teach their kids to get the most out of happy surprises and lessen the neurological damage done by difficult ones. The following are examples of what parents can do to help their children be more resilient.

First, ask your child to find a teacher they can turn to if they feel unsafe or have an urgent matter to discuss. To be successful in stressful situations, children need to know that they have a trustworthy adult at their school who cares deeply about them.

Next, teach your children to ask three questions when in a new situation or environment. First, "Am I safe? And if not, what do I need to do to make myself safe?" Teach your children that safety refers to both physical and emotional safety.

The second question is, "What things do I have with me?" Children will find a sense of security when they inventory the things they have like their notebook and lunch, their class schedule and warm coat, and their emergency contact names and numbers.

And finally, "What do I need to do next?" Surprising situations often leave children not knowing what they are supposed to do. Teach children to ask a trusted person what to do next when they are not sure.

Whether it is a happy surprise or a tough one, children make the most of the change when they are skilled at observing their own reactions. Is their heart beating hard? Do they want to jump right in? Do they want to stand back and watch? Teaching a child to observe their physical and emotional condition helps them stay calm and aware. This is an important skill for making good decisions during unexpected or chaotic situations.

Most surprises are easily managed by children. However, some situations are extreme and fall into the category of adverse childhood experiences. These are preventable traumatic events like repeated bullying, the violent death of a classmate or teacher, and sexual harassment and intimidation. Reports should be made and professional advice should be sought in these kinds of circumstances.

Parents can prepare their children to manage challenging situations by asking them in advance what their hopes for the school year are. Knowing what your child is expecting to happen will provide insight into how your child is impacted by change. Write their hopes down and keep them handy for regularly check-ins.

Sometimes your child's dream will be unexpectedly crushed. Take these moments to bond with your child. Give sufficient time, then together renew their written hopes and dreams and check in about the three questions you taught them. Consider other ways to accomplish their dream and find new ones to achieve. The end of the school year is never that far away.

One last thought, grades are important, friends are important, and your personal integrity is important. These are examples of grounding parenting principles that can be used as a framework for your parenting and introduced as concepts when your child is ready.

While the first day of school is exciting, the most important day of school is the last. The conversation you want to have with your child at the end of the year starts now. When properly prepared, it will be no surprise that your child is sitting in their seat when the final bell rings and thinking, "I did it. I have what it takes to finish."

HELPFUL LINKS

All parents and all adults who work with children should be trained to identify and prevent child sexual harassment and grooming. Arrange a training for "Stewards of Children Darkness to Light".

Use these first and final day of school templates to write down your hopes and dreams.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Byron Manering is executive director of the Brigid Collins Family Support Center in Bellingham.

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