How to Cope with Challenging School Transitions

Oh man have we suffered over repeated years with back-to-school transitions! The following is a collection of tips for how 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 understandably difficult 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...friends from preschool, cousins, neighborhood kids. A few weeks in, perhaps invite a new friend from class over for a playdate.

5. Play high/low

This is one of my favorite tips, per our resident educational expert Sheri Park. Simply ask your kid to share one high and one low from the day; it's a simple tactic that will make it OK for your kid to air negative feelings and also find a silver lining. Knowing these extremes also has helped me 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, celebrate the end of each school day during the first challenging week or two.

How to cope with challenging school transitions.

How to cope with challenging school transitions.

8. Offer choices

Choice is empowering for kids, whether it's picking out clothing, 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

Routines are so important! They helps kids feel secure and have a sense of what's happening, and will definitely help ease transition.

11. Share and relate

It can be 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.