14 Ways to Cope with Challenging School Transitions

For the final post in my back to school refresher series, I wanted to share this archive post on coping with challenging school transitions. We suffered with transition woes big time over repeated years with Laurel and relied on a number of tactics to help us through. Here are 14 ways to cope with challenging school transitions, which I deliver with hugs and high fives and good wishes for back to school season!

1. Remain calm. Everything goes better when you can remain calm. Sometimes it’s hard not to get frustrated, but deep breathing -– and keeping in mind how huge a transition school is -– helps put things in perspective.

2. Listen. Sometimes kids just need to air their feelings. You don't need to solve the problem, just listen and affirm you hear him/her.

3. Pick up the phone. Phone calls to relatives and friends helped Laurel a lot when she was struggling with her new classrooms. It was interesting to hear her recount favorite things about the day, and was affirming to me that there were, in fact, some high points!

4. Plan a get together. Over the weekends or after school, play a playdate or two with familiar faces. A few weeks in, perhaps invite a new friend from class over for a playdate.

5. Play high/low. I absolutely love the high/low tip in Sheri’s post on schedules and routines. This tactic helps you get to conversations about how to focus on the positive and find ways to cope with the less fun parts of the day. Knowing these extremes also makes it easier for me to communicate with teachers about needs and issues.

6. Send them with a reminder. Whether it’s a concept (such as kisses per The Kissing Hand) or a physical object (such as the locket Laurel wore for her first years of school), little reminders of home and family can help.

7. Build in celebrations or milestones. Whether it’s a small treat or something as simple as a dance party in your living room (recommended by my friend Cara), celebrate the end of each school day during the first challenging week or two.

8. Offer choices. Choice is empowering for kids, whether it's picking out the outfit for the day, choosing breakfast, or deciding on a backpack color. Choice can also help at transition time at school (e.g., goodbyes).

9. Affirm trust. When Laurel started kindergarten, we realized that she wasn't just sad about missing us, she was scared. She said something along the lines of, "Kindergarten is scary because I don't know if I can trust the grownups." We found that it helped to affirm our trust in her teachers and the fact that we would never put her in a situation where we didn't trust the grownups. It also was helpful to engage her in little games, such as estimating how many kindergartners Laurel's teacher has taught in her career, to illustrate that her teacher has been doing this a long time (to rave reviews, as it turns out) and is trustworthy.

10. Get in a routine. I posted earlier this week about the importance of schedule and routine. Routine helps kids feel secure and have a sense of what's happening, and will definitely help ease transition.

11. Share and relate. As I mentioned in my post about how to talk to your kids about puberty, it can be so helpful to share your own stories, especially when you're sharing about how you struggled with something and made it through.

12. Get creative. In the past, we've used music and art to help Laurel through things (e.g., making up a song with silly lyrics or drawing a picture about a tough situation). It can also be helpful to give your child a creative challenge to focus on; for example, report back how many people were wearing jeans or counting the number of yellow objects in the classroom.

13. Don’t dwell. Though it's good to listen (#2) and help your kids process, you also don't want to feed the anxiety and dwell too long. Remember that kids will ultimately need to find their way through the transitions; given them a listening ear, encouragement, and some ways to cope, and then move on.

14. Thank the teachers. I have made a point to express my gratitude to Laurel's teachers for their patience and kindness. I know teachers should be used to this sort of thing, but after having a really terrible experience in first grade (I cried daily at the beginning and my teacher turned on me and was cruel, which made things even worse) I used to worry that Laurel's teachers would get frustrated and cast her aside as problematic or high maintenance. Communicating her typical adjustment patterns with them has been helpful for all parties.

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