Coping With End of Year Transitions

school-drop-off.jpgLaurel's transition to kindergarten was rough. It took 2-3 months for her to get to a point where she happily jumped into line and marched into class with the other kids. Save the occasional social tussle, the next 5 or so months were blissfully easy. But the last few weeks have been a struggle of similar proportions to the kindergarten transition. Freak out drop offs. Sobbing in the evening in anticipation of school. Her teachers looking disgruntled. Her parents looking exhausted. It was helpful for me to revisit the advice I collected in the fall, and now I want to share advice I have amassed for coping with end of year transitions. I hope this is helpful for those of you whose kids are struggling as the school year winds to a close.

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First, as context, though perhaps Laurel has some concern about the end of the year and the uncertainty of first grade, the main issue seems to be a new fear Laurel has developed about her teacher after being reprimanded sharply for crying in class. I'm not sure how this all started, but Laurel said that when she's at school she gets really sad, missing us, and when she cries, the teachers "boss her around." Laurel is very sensitive to adult approval so we have kept the lines of communication open with her teachers (hoping for their continued patience) and worked with Laurel to try to shift her perspective and behavior. Here are some things we've been working on:

Acknowledge that the feelings are normal. Yes, Laurel is the only one in her class sobbing at drop off, but I know it is common for kids to get anxious at the end of the school year -- it just may manifest in different ways for different kids (other parents in our class have reported angry, cranky, or nervous-without-tears behavior). We've been affirming with Laurel that these feelings are common. (And the other day we saw a girl in a different kindergarten class sobbing her way down the hall at drop off...solidarity.)

Inspire calm and acknowledge the effort. Laurel is not a faker. She clearly is suffering and is trying really hard to buck up. But we all know that feeling of trying to suppress tears, which makes you want to cry more. I have found that she can recovery more quickly if I remain calm and patient, encourage her to keep taking deep breaths, and also acknowledge that I know she is doing the best that she can.

Remind them to keep busy. One thing that Laurel has complained about is that when she misses us, time drags. At one point I talked to her about the weird thing about time -- that when you're bored or unhappy, time drags, and when you're busy, time flies. She lit up when I said that and shared that that happens to her at lunch; she'll be eating and chatting with friends and all of a sudden lunch is almost over. I suggested that when she gets to points of the day where she starts to feel sad, to ask a teacher for a different activity -- something to keep her busy so the time passes more quickly. The teacher has also jumped in on this and tries to engage her with different jobs around the classroom since Laurel likes being a helper.

Shake up the routine. Typically, Jon does drop off and I do pick up. But dealing with the freak out drop offs was wearing heavily on Jon and I think also got them into a habit. Last week I decided to shake up the mojo and start helping with drop offs. In the morning, when I'm fresh off sleep, I've got endless patience and encouragement (vs. at the end of the night when Laurel is crying in anticipation of school and I just want her to relax and get a good night's sleep). Whether I actually offer a different type of comfort, or she is simply latching on to a change in routine, Laurel seems to have a little easier time when I drop her off.

Take baby steps. One thing we discovered accidentally -- by virtue of being late one day and having to use the late entrance -- is that it is easier for Laurel to transition to the classroom during this hard period without the whole schoolyard staring at her (because yeah, it truly sucks to hear other kids say,"What's wrong with that girl? Why is she always crying?"). The last few days we have intentionally waited to go in the late door and literally have seen Laurel take baby steps, a few at a time, pausing and trying to breathe and calm down, until we make it to the classroom.

Declare a truce. Because the crux of the issue seems to be that Laurel and her teacher are butting heads, last week after I talked to her teacher at the end of the day, I remembered a post I had written about Laurel and I declaring a truce, and how effective that was. With Laurel's teacher and I down at eye level with Laurel, I told Laurel that we were all on the same team and that her teacher still loves her (which the teacher helpfully jumped in and affirmed), and that it was time to declare a truce. Laurel found this really funny. They shook hands and it seemed to help.

Keep talking to -- and thanking -- the teacher. Jon and I are acutely aware that the end of the year is hard for the teachers too. They are likely tired, managing a million things, and probably aren't as patient as they were at the beginning of the year. I know that Laurel's crying behavior drains their resources; we keep thanking them for their patience and asking them if there is anything we can do to help. Also, after talking to several other parents, we realized that the teachers have been talking about how hard and strict first grade is going to be. I know the teachers are trying to prepare the kids, but they are also scaring them. I have asked the teachers to also share with the kids the good things that come with going to first grade, not just the rule oriented stuff.

Consider incentives. I'm normally not into behavioral incentives, but we did cave when things were really horrendous the other week, and presented Laurel with the idea that on the last day of school we could go to the toy store and she could pick something out to celebrate finishing the year, as a way to give her something to look forward to. She has definitely latched onto this idea.

Plan a celebration. I have talked with a few friends about planning a celebration at the end of the year, either with Laurel's pre-K friends (she has a very tight circle that she attended day care with, all the way from babyhood) or her kindergarten friends. I really like the idea of ending the year on a celebratory note, no matter what trials have preceded it.

Consider outside help. Several friends have recommended talking to the school psychologist for advice about transitions. And another friend recommended having a behavioral specialist sit in at the classroom to observe. We're sort of late in the game for either of these options, but I would definitely consider it for next year (beginning or end of the year!).

Think about next steps. Several of my friends have suggested thinking ahead to the adjustment to first grade, recommending meeting with the new teacher in advance and visiting the classroom. I also plan on taking advantage of the school-organized summer meetups for Laurel's assigned class so she can meet some of her new classmates in advance.

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In short, I realize there are only five days of school left, but we clearly still have our work cut out for us. But it has been getting easier, I think due at least in part to the various strategies above. At present, we're finally past the sobbing at night in anticipation of school, and have had two days where there was no crying during the day, only in the morning. As I said earlier, it's all about baby steps.

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