For most kids, going back to school is a big transition and for some it feels like a momentous challenge. Whether your child is starting school for the first time or changing schools or teachers, going back can bring up lots of feelings for kids and adults!

Fears and anxieties can run high when kids head back to school. But our children don’t always tell us directly that they are nervous about the first day, worried about who their new teacher will be, afraid they won’t have friends in their classes, or anxious about whether or not they’ll be able to keep up.

Instead, they refuse to put their pajamas on, demand sunny side up eggs instead of scrambled, and knock their brother’s block tower over and smile.

There’s a lot you can do to ease the transition back to school. Whether you are a few weeks into the new year, or waiting to start the first day, these tips will help you and your child feel good about going back to school.

Increase rough-and-tumble play!

When we roughhouse, wrestle, or chase our child down the hall, it does a lot more than reduce the tension of new beginnings–like starting school again. Rough-and-tumble play teaches self control, fairness, and empathy.

Roughhousing, in particular, releases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which helps to stimulate neuron growth in the cortex and hippocampus of the brain. Both are vital to higher learning, and help a child strengthen their memory, their language, and their ability to reason.

In his book, Affective Neuroscience, Jaak Panksepp discusses the connection between physical play and learning. He suggests that rough-and-tumble play not only helps a child let off steam, but also rewires the neural network in their brain that is in charge of attention span, motivation, persistence, and reasoning.

In The Art of Roughhousing, Larry Cohen and Anthony DeBenedet make the claim that roughhousing builds the foundation for academic success:

“Being smart is about more than good grades and high test scores. To succeed in life, you need emotional intelligence as well. Play, especially roughhousing, promotes emotional intelligence.  So when anxious parents ask us how they can assure their toddlers’ acceptance to a good college, our answer is, “More play!”

Responding to feelings

Play can help nurture the kind of closeness and connection a child needs in big transitions. But it can also create a type of safety that allows a child to showcase difficult feelings. They may suddenly burst into tears in the middle of a sock fight, or refuse to play by the rules of Candy Land and stomp off.

If that’s the case, use the opportunity to lean in and listen. You don’t need to say much. Sometimes, just a simple, “I’m sorry this is hard” will help release the tears and tension that were building. Sometimes a limit is needed, “We’re going to play by the rules today.” Sometimes  it’s that limit that brings forth the flood of tears.

The tears are actually the healing part of the process. It’s not fun to listen to a tantrum, but in the aftermath of the upset,, a child can think more clearly about a solution or find empathy for their friend.

Acknowledge their experience as you listen

Often when our kids are feeling bad, we want to find solutions or make them feel better (that’s if we’re not rife with anger!) A kid might say:

  • “I hate school.”
  • “I have the worst teacher ever!”

It’s hard to hear those things, but it’s good they’re getting them out, and it’s clear they feel safe enough with you to say them.

However, if we respond with things like:

  • “Oh, it won’t be that bad.”
  • “Don’t worry, things will be fine.”

They learn that their feelings aren’t valid and that big, scary worries should be brushed under the carpet.  So instead try:

  • “You hate school? I know that’s hard.”
  • “I found school tough too. What do you hate about it?”
  • “I wonder what would help?”

Let them come up with some solutions. Even if they’re impractical, the process of problem solving, after the tears have cleared, will help them feel heard and soothe some of their fears. Often with a little tweaking kids have solutions that are not so bad. 🙂

Load up on love and appreciation:

If school is zapping your child’s self-esteem and their mood has soured since the summer, this is a good time to deliver an extra dose of love and appreciation. Here are a four ideas:

  1. Set the alarm earlier on a week day morning and carve out time for extra snuggles or a few minutes of special time.
  2. Leave a love note in their lunch box or a sticky note on their computer that lets them know what you appreciate about them.
  3. Put together a “joy jar”. Find a small container or bag and fill it with a few of your child’s favorite things. This could include art supplies, small animals, or sweet treats.
  4. Do a love blast. An extended special time, a love blast is when you take a short trip with your child (it could be an overnight somewhere or an afternoon with just the two of you). The key is that your child gets to choose where you go and what you do (within limits of expense and distance.)

Heading back to school is a big change. Morning meltdowns and nighttime battles can be worse on a weekday. Remember that in challenging transitions, big feelings are right around the corner. Try ten minutes a day of rough and tumble play, fill your child up with extra love and snuggles, and diffuse difficult moments with empathy and understanding.