It’s that time of year again where kids return to or start childcare, kinder or school and parents and kids alike adjust to new routines and environments.
For some families, the transition feels easeful. For most, however, the start of a new school year can bring with it anxiety, stress and challenging family dynamics as everyone adjusts.
Even though we are a few weeks in to the term, I’ve heard from a lot of parents that the transition this year has been hard. So here I’m sharing some tips for transitions – to support your child, yes. But also to support you and your other child/ren too.
1. Tune into your feelings
We can be quick to leap in to help our child if they are struggling to adjust, but first thing’s first. Before jumping in to support your child, it’s a good idea to check in with your own feelings and emotions. Take a moment now as you’re reading this to slow down your breath, place your hand on your heart, and maybe even close your eyes or lower your gaze. Allow your thoughts to slow and your exhale to lengthen. Ask yourself how you’re feeling, really. Notice if you’re experiencing sensations that might be labelled anxiety, stress, worry or concern. Notice where they are being held in the body. Acknowledge them. Listen to them for a moment.
And then ask yourself how you might resource yourself right now to return to a state of more ease? Perhaps it’s a big hug, lying on the grass, calling a friend or taking a bath. Whatever it is, do it unapologetically and as soon as you are able.
While you might be trying to support your child’s regulation, the first step to take towards that is supporting yourself to find that safety and support. Transitions can bring up big feelings for everyone – and when things aren’t going to plan, we can be quick to internalise it as something we are doing or not doing. Perhaps the new routine is stretching us, and we are feeling time-poor and stressed. Perhaps our child is coming home with challenging behaviour and we are not sure how to support them. Perhaps we feel like everyone else has it easier than us. Perhaps we are also parenting other children who are processing changes to their daily routine and the loss of a playmate during the day. Whatever it is you’re feeling, know that your feelings are valid. And you’re certainly not alone.
When you can validate, acknowledge, and name your feelings – and access support to help you find some regulation, you’ll be better able to support your littlies.
One other thing to keep in mind here is what comes up for you regarding your own schooling experience when your child starts school. Being conscious of what your own imprints around school were can help you identify what is yours (and what you may need support with to process and heal from) and what is your child’s experience. Try to stay curious about what thoughts and feelings are coming up for you and what you’re making this mean about how your child is experiencing this transition.
Imagine you were about to start a new job, only you hadn’t been told where the building was, what was expected of you, where the toilet was, when you’d get to eat or who was going to be there. Oh, and it was miles away from those you loved the most and everything you’d learned to equate with safety. Scary, huh?
Now imagine you had an opportunity to ask all the questions you had – to name all your worries, to learn a bit more about the people and the job, the environment, and the expectations. You were able to problem solve and find solutions to the things that you found tricky socially or environmentally ahead of time. You’d feel a bit better, right?
Kids benefit from having as much information as possible and they cope better when they can understand what is happening next. Providing your child with as much information as you can about their new environment and what to expect, will likely help them feel more confident. This might look like taking them to the space they’ll be going to for some transition days – showing them the route to the toilet, to their lunchbox, telling them who they can ask if you need to be called. You might introduce them to key people – sharing facts about their hobbies or interests so that they feel a little more relatable. You might write out the daily routine so that they can get a feel of how the day’s rhythm might go.
You can even practice or role play ‘school’ at home, following the routine of putting bags away, placing water bottles in their correct location or having a snack break. For children that find social interactions challenging, role playing certain situations in the playground may also help to alleviate anxiety and build confidence.
The more familiarity a child feels with the environment, expectations and care providers, the more likely they are to feel confident and safe. Making space for answering questions – even if they are being asked for the thousandth time – and identifying any areas where your child seems to be lacking information will help to support you both to feel confident in navigating the transition.
3. Listen to and validate feelings
No matter how prepared you are, there will likely be feelings. Big ones. Maybe your child is hungry, tired, getting sick or has had an interaction at school or care that they’re not sure how to process. They can often experience multiple challenges and upsets that build up during the day resulting in a large accumulation of feelings that they then release when they see you, their safe person, at the end of the day. Whatever the reason, it can be helpful to remind yourself that your job in this situation is not to make the feelings go away or to necessarily solve the problem (that may come later).
If your child is having big feelings before or after school, kinder or childcare, know that this is common (and understandable), and a way they are making sense of and processing the big changes to their world.
While your child is expressing their feelings, you may want to move closer to them physically and ask if they would like to sit on your lap or have a cuddle. If they don’t want physical contact, it is helpful to respect this and stay close by, while also letting them know you are there for them. Don’t worry too much about what to say to them while they’re right in the feelings, you can simply validate them by saying something like: “that was really scary”, or mirroring back to them whatever they are saying, for example: “you really missed me today”. Try not to move them through their feelings too quickly or to dismiss their concerns when they do raise them. It’s natural to want our children to succeed in their new environment and to be worried when they are having a challenging time, but for many children with time and the right support, they can adjust and thrive on the other side of a transition. If they are unable to explain why they are feeling scared, sad, angry etc. then you might gently offer some suggestions, for example, “I wonder if you’re feeling this way because…..”
If the feelings are more explosive, make sure that everyone is safe and respect your child if they don’t want to be touched or held. In this instance, you may need to wait until they are on the other side of the big feelings to chat about what they need or what they might be feeling.
Sometimes, you might not have capacity to listen to their feelings or your child’s behaviour has you worried. In these situations, don’t hesitate to reach out for help – you don’t have to go it alone. Also remember that the presence of your child’s big feelings is not a reflection on you or your parenting capacity! It is understandable that after a day of feeling relatively powerless – being told what to do and when, when they can eat, play, have to stop playing or move on to the next task – and trying their very best to conform to the expectations the school sets for them, that they would have some big feelings about this!
As grown-ups, we might process things mentally rather than physically but for kids, it’s all about play! A great way to support regulation and healthy expression of feelings is to offer lots of opportunities for play before or after school. Follow your child’s lead on what they might find supportive, knowing it may be different on any given day. Some days, they may really need a big physical play at the park. Hanging, swinging, rolling or playfighting.
Other days, they may seek to play creative role play games where the roles are reversed. They may, for example, want to be the teacher and for you to be the student. For older kids they may also like to explore social interactions and replay moments in the day in different ways. This can be a wonderful opportunity for you to understand what is going on for your child at school. Play invites the opportunity for children to work through scenarios that are troubling them at school and is a great way for them to process their feelings around these experiences. Do your best to let the child lead the play here and stay curious about what they’re bringing you through their play.
Playing separation games like peek-a-boo for younger kids or hide and seek for older kids can offer pathways to play with caregivers leaving and coming back, which can help when separating from you in the morning is challenging for your child.
Finally, play offers all important connection time and can even act as a mood booster for you as well! If you’re able to lean into the opportunity for play, it can be a beautiful way to connect with your child, as well as an opportunity for you to enjoy the present moment with them. However, I also want to acknowledge here that if play wasn’t role modelled for you as a child, you might find it hard being playful with your child. Feeling resourced enough in yourself to be playful with your children will set yourself up for more enjoyable play interactions with your child, so prioritising our own self-care as much as you are able to will help make this feel more easeful for you. There are some great resources available that provide ideas of how to play with your child if you’re feeling stuck. Please get in touch with me if you’d like me to send them to you!
5. Plan ahead
Because of the ways our children are so connected with and attuned to us, when things feel rushed and we are stressed ourselves, our child can pick up on this worry too. Getting up early (or preparing the night before) and ensuring clothes are ready, lunchboxes are packed and any special items that help your child to feel safe away from home are safely in the backpack can help everyone feel calmer in the mornings. Giving your child as much choice as possible is also helpful here, for example, choosing what they want in their lunchbox and when/where they get dressed. Bringing play in can also be helpful if it’s a struggle to get your child ready in the morning, for example, playing a game where you put their shorts on your head and asking them: “is this where your shorts go?!” The laughter that often follows with this type of play can help shift some of the feelings and make the mornings run a bit more smoothly.
If the mornings are still feeling difficult, consider practically what might make more space for you all in the morning and what can be prepared the night before. Making time for connection with your child first thing in the morning, before getting started with the ‘getting ready’ routine can also help the morning run a bit smoother as children are more likely to cooperate if they’re feeling connected. Encouraging your child to be part of the preparation in an age appropriate way can help as well.
After you pick up your child from school or care it’s natural to want to ask them a million questions about their day. We naturally want our child to have a good experience and to be engaged with the caregivers, teachers, and the environment they learn in.
However, giving them some space, coming prepared with a snack and some water, and offering some quiet time on the way home can be supportive as they transition between childcare/school and home. Notice when they want to engage and talk as well as when they don’t and do your best to offer support and space to listen and validate their emotions when they do arise.
Physically they may desire more closeness, or you may notice they want less. Whatever it is they need, try to make space for connection if they want it and offer activities that you know help them to decompress – like drawing, listening or playing outside or with animals.
7. Adjust and adapt
We often downplay how big transitions can be until after we’re through them. They may last longer than we think, and they may be more challenging than we anticipated. As such, being willing to be flexible and adjusting and adapting around everyone’s needs is vital. You may have to reduce demands on you or your child/ren for a while until you all find your feet – and that is OK!
Giving everyone the space to adjust will help to create the space needed for everyone’s feelings to be acknowledged and will set everyone up for more enjoyment and ease in the long run.
Unscheduling and making more time for unstructured play and down time, having discussions with caregivers or teachers, changing routines or bringing in other supports are all great options if you or your child are struggling with the transition. We worry that people will judge us but when we start to tap into the resources and communities around us, we may be surprised at just how much support networks can exist and be created to help us make our way through these transitions.
8. Care and support
Don’t forget, you are also worthy of care and support during transitions. After drop off or before pick up, if it is possible to create space in your day, you might want to go for a walk, call a friend if you’re needing some listening time, or rest. Filling up your cup when you can will enable you to have more space for your child and their feelings when they return. As always, prioritising your own sleep, nourishment and exercise helps to resource yourself when supporting your child with this transition.
Finally, if your child is still struggling or they share what is happening during their day that is making it hard for them, it may be time for a conversation with the school/day care. Most teachers are doing their best with the resources available to them, but they are often not able to attune to every child’s unique needs with the large class sizes they are responsible for and ridiculously high workloads they are given, and providing them with further information about your child’s individual needs may be beneficial. Furthermore, overall, our mainstream education system is still using outdated behaviour management strategies that are not backed by current evidence that can lead to children being punished and feeling disconnected, powerless and ‘not enough’ and this can then lead to further behaviour challenges at school and/or at home. I have heard countless examples of this over the last few weeks with many parents feeling powerless to do anything to change things in a system where the reward/’consequences’/punishment approach is so deeply engrained. If this is a concern of yours with your child’s school, what I can offer here is encouragement to continue to advocate for your child (and all children!), pushing back against any ‘good girl’ or ‘good boy’ conditioning that might be preventing you from ‘making a fuss’ or being ‘that’ parent (easier said than done, I know!). The book Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn is a great research-backed resource you could offer. Alternatively, changing schools, part-time homeschooling or withdrawing your child completely and homeschooling for a term (or longer) instead may be other options to consider (if possible for you) if after advocating for your child, you still feel that the school is not a good fit for them.
I hope that you have found some strategies to help support you and your child in their transition to or back to school, kinder or childcare in this article. If you would like some further individualised support, I invite you to book in a 1-1 session with me here.
Please note that this is general advice only. Not all strategies offered will work for all children. Looking at the child in front of you, being flexible and adaptable, while maintaining connection and curiosity about what is going on for your child is key.