Pooja Harlalka is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist. At The Acres Foundation, currently she serves as the Head of Counseling, and Head of the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Program, working to develop inclusive education systems and developing the Foundation’s flagship SEL curriculum. She has been working in the field of mental health and education since the past 11 years. Her work also includes individual and group therapy and supervision for therapists in training. Her experience includes working with public and private schools, the jail system and families in New York, US and Chandigarh, Mumbai, India.
Transitions and change always take some settling in time for everyone involved, children and adults. This is to be expected regardless of whether it’s returning to school physically after attending school online for a long period of time, or after vacation breaks during the school year. Transitions might always be accompanied with nervousness and need time, however there are things that can be done or avoided to soothe the nerves and ease into them.
Routine and Preparation
DO, start preparing, as the time to get back to school gets closer.
- Check if important materials for school are in place and appropriately labelled such as student and parent IDs, uniforms, books and devices, homework, projects, etc well in advance. This way if something needs to get bought, replaced, washed, labelled, a project finished, etc, there is enough time to get it done without anyone panicking.
- Start getting into the routine they follow during school days at least a few days earlier. The routine for sleep is the most important to start early. This means having children go to bed and wake up at the same time they would during school days instead of the altered timings they might be following during vacations.
- Doing this will help their bodies adjust to the new sleep cycle in time for when school starts which will lead to:
(1) children waking up and getting ready on time with little or no fuss when school starts
(2) their body being alert, energetic, ready to learn when they get back to school
(3) avoiding headaches, minor illnesses, energy drain, crankiness and any struggles children might face due to lack or irregular sleep, through school and after school activities.
- If your child needs more time to settle into a new routine, it is recommended to start changing the sleep routine at least a week in advance. Especially for younger children, go over the timetable/ schedule for the next day together and pack their bags. This way they know what to expect the next day in different classes and are feeling less or not lost or anxious in classes.
In case your child tends to feel anxious in new environments, it would be best to collaborate with the school team and arrange for a school tour before the first day of school for your child to meet their teachers and get familiar with the physical environment that they will be going to. This is especially important when starting at a new school or a new building/ floor/ classroom.
If your child has additional needs and would struggle with attending the full day right from the get-go, collaborate with the school team to start off with fewer hours and increase the school day for your child more gradually. This might mean that your child goes in for 2-3 hours for the first two days and then increases the time by 1-1.5 hours each following day. Plan this based on what would work best for your child’s needs.
DON’T wait until the night before to check whether the important things are in place. Although planning the night before is good as a daily practice, it isn’t enough for “back-to-school”. In case something is lost, broken, needs to be washed or labelled, you might not have enough time to get it done. This can result in parents and children feeling overwhelmed, rushed and already under prepared for the first day of school.
Worries and Messaging
- DO talk about changes and feelings. Talk to your children about how they’re feeling about going back to school. Ask them about things they are looking forward to and excited to do in school. Also ask them about anything they might be worried about. If they share they’re going missing you, validate their feelings by saying it’s okay to miss people and that you will miss them too, and then remind them that you will see them before and after school.
- If you’re a parent who works late, tell them you will see them at night, i.e. after school, they will have their classes, have dinner with siblings and grandparents, and then you will be back from work and see them. Be as accurate and true as possible. This will help them stay less stressed or anxious throughout the day as they know when to expect seeing you instead of feeling uncertain and confused. Children will often do this by repeating what you have told them to themselves through the day.
Make sure your messaging through what you say is clear. We want children to know and feel that we believe school is positive and we want them to go to school.
We can do this by
(1) assuring them they will see you after school
(2) reminding them what they like about school
(3) problem solving with them if there is something troubling them without the first option being they can choose not to go to school
(4) reminding them why they go to school – to learn new things, make friends, achieve their goals.
As parents, we might have our own anxieties and worries of our children going to school. As much as possible try not to pass them on to the children and instead discuss your own worries with other adults. Stay away from giving mixed messages such as saying things that might indicate school is optional, or school is good and bad.
Example: stay away from saying it’s okay if you don’t want to go to school or you can go to school if you feel like going and stay home if you don’t feel like going. This is confusing for children especially if they’re already feeling a little anxious themselves. They feel more safe and stable with clear, direct messaging. Children feed off of our energy and so we need to be clear that going to school is positive and you want them to go to school, even if it’s hard sometimes.
Change in behaviour
DO keep a check for change in behaviour.
All children are different hence might act differently while getting used to a change or transitioning from one routine to another. We can expect to see some change in their usual behaviour. Therefore, what we want to pay attention to is not whether our child is acting differently or “oddly” but (1) how odd are they acting? Just a little bit or quite a lot and (2) for how long are they acting different or odd? If it’s 1-2 weeks it might not be anything to worry about; if it consistently lasts longer than that, it might be something to check-in with them about and explore what might be going on.
DON’T ignore it if your child’s behaviour has changed or their acting oddly for a long period of time. They might need a little more support.
Prepare and take everything else one step at a time 🙂