By Dr. Jonathan Stern and Dr. Lisa Brown, RSS Pyschologists
The beginning of a new school year provides students of all ages with an opportunity to confront the challenge of change. Change and transitions can stress the best of us, at any age, and helping children develop the ability to navigate through the waters of change is an important skill that will serve them well throughout their lives. As with so many life experiences, how parents model coping with new beginnings sets the tone for their children doing the same. When we start a new job, begin a new relationship, enter a new situation, or experience any life change, do we become anxious, panic, and/or try to control the situation? Do we manufacture all sorts of potential negative outcomes? Do we doubt our own abilities to adjust to change? Alternatively, do we approach change with an open mind, a tolerance for uncertainty, and the belief that we can turn a new experience into a good one?
When children express concerns or questions about the new school year, parents naturally feel a pull to reassure them. Some reassurance, of course, is helpful. It’s also beneficial for children when parents take the time to listen to and explore concerns first before helping children problem solve around anticipated situations. For example, if your child says, “I heard that you have to do really hard work in third grade; what if I can’t do it?” it is helpful to clarify (and not to assume) what the child’s specific concerns are and to help him/her think through what they might do if they do experience work that is too hard for them.
This sort of exchange helps children develop their own ability to prepare for and cope with a potentially challenging situation. When children are quickly reassured by parents, their concerns and feelings are short-circuited, remain unexamined, unexpressed and possibly misunderstood, and the opportunity to develop coping skills is missed.
Most, if not all, of children’s questions and concerns about the new school year are related to uncertainty. Helping children tolerate uncertainty is an important aspect of their developing the ability to cope with change throughout their lives, a component of what is called “grit” by some psychologists. It’s okay for parents to not have answers to all of their kids’ questions. It’s actually helpful for children, at times, to hear their parents respond in a curious way with a statement like, “I don’t know; we can try to find out more from ____ at school” or “I don’t know; we’ll figure it out.” This sort of attitude from parents models safety in moving forward in the face of not knowing, as well as the confidence that aspects of a situation can become known over time.
All children, particularly those entering the transition years of first and fifth grades, can be reassured that they will be supported by teachers, that it is expected that students will take time to adjust to new routines and that it’s perfectly fine—even a good thing—for a student to admit that he/she doesn’t know how to do something or get somewhere. Teachers expect, and even welcome, such communications from their students. Many students have gone to RSS for so many years that they may be embarrassed to admit having questions about something new or different. It can be helpful to reassure them that, at the beginning of a new school year, they can be both old-timers and newcomers.
Keep in mind how your children have grown and changed over the summer. Encourage them to use their new skills and selves, which they may be quite proud of, as they approach a new school year. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus highlighted, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” We – parents and children alike- all benefit from developing the confidence that we can adapt to, and grow from, changes within and outside of ourselves.