Life transitions, happy, sad, or mixed, all involve some degree of stress for our system. Children often experience such transitions when they go to a new school, to a new camp, move to a new home, adjust to their parents’ separation or divorce, lose a loved one or just go back to school after a vacation. In our adult life, we too obviously experience many transitions.
Transitions all have one thing in common: they require us to use emotional, physiological, social, and cognitive resources to meet the new demands on our system. As long as we are well equipped, adjusting to new challenges can be a source of growth. When we are not, however, the stress exerted on our system may become overwhelming and have an adverse impact.
With this in mind, how can you equip your child so they can enjoy and grow from their transition to a new school? Well, the principle is quite simple, though sometimes challenging to implement: Parents need to assess whether their child’s emotional, cognitive, social, and physiological resources match those required for a successful transition.
This is an area in which parents can have a crucial impact. Children who are extroverted, self-confident, sensation seeking, and have a strong social support system, may thrive in transitions (and require support in other areas). In contrast, those who have more cautious temperaments, sensory sensitivities, do not have adequate support, and/or who have experienced adverse life transitions in the past, may feel triggered by their transition to a new school.
Reducing the amount of novelty involved in the transition may be a first and effective step parents can undertake. This could be done by doing the following: meeting the teachers ahead of time, visiting the school to become familiar with the classroom, hallways and bathroom area, preparing the school material and offering the child the opportunity to manipulate it, learning the new school’s routines with your child and practicing them, getting a list and pictures of the teachers and children in the class and learning their names, browsing on the school’s website with the child to become familiar with the faces and names of the administrative staff, etc...
In addition, parents may want to be proactive and check with the school what type of personal belongings are allowed in the classroom. Personal belongings such as stuffed animals to whom your child is attached, can be a great source of comfort in a new environment. Pictures or small objects such as beloved rocks, sequins, or other “treasures” that your child cherishes can also be effective.
In the same vein, granting your child a sense of control and power to counterbalance the lack of power they experience during the transition is also important. This may be done by encouraging make-belief play in which your child is the teacher, the guide, the parent etc… who helps a doll/stuffed animal adjust to a new school. This can also be achieved by avoiding power battles with your child during morning and evening routines. Instead, use playful strategies to increase compliance.
Last, parents may find it helpful to increase the amount of one-on-one time they provide their child during the transition. Having a loving and supportive relationship with a caregiver is a protective factor against anxiety. During this quality time with your child, aim for activities that you and your child both enjoy. In addition, it is important to help your children normalize and verbalize their experience. You can use books (such as “First day Jitters” by Julie Danneberg for 5-8 y/o children), “Max and Millie start school” by Felicity Brooks for preschoolers, or in general, the Kimochi series of books by Amy Novesky) or other resources available on the ADAA website to help your child verbalize their anxiety and reduce their fear of such state.
Children have different learning styles. Making sure that their school has the capacity to cater to theirs is pivotal. If the school does not, and if the gap is such that the child is defeated, experiences anxiety symptoms, and internalizes negative self-beliefs, it is probably wise to look for a different school.
In addition, teaching your child appropriate problem solving skills is also very effective to help them cope with life challenges and transitions. However, this is a long term goal, and you may want to wait for the end of the transition period to focus on it.
Some children naturally possess excellent social skills. For them, being in a classroom full of children they have never seen before will not be a challenge. If your child is not among those, supporting them in this area will be a key for a successful transition. You can do so by organizing playdates with classmates, asking the teachers to introduce your child to one or two other children who could be good matches, “teaching” social skills through story reading, and more.
Some children have strong stamina, others less. If your child is in the second category, that is completely fine, and chances are that with the right amount of support they will progress in this area as well. Make sure your child rests enough, receives enough unstructured time to play and relax, and eats a balanced diet. Less known but equally important is to assess your child’s sensory profile. For example, if your child is sensory sensitive, noisy and bright classrooms may be challenging for her: look for a quiet and soothing learning environment. On the other hand, if your child is sensory-seeking, and needs to roam about, classrooms where children are expected to sit still throughout the day may be problematic. Communicating with the teachers and finding ways to increase or reduce the amount of sensory stimuli your child is exposed to may be important in this area.
Last, as a parent you may want to become knowledgeable on the topic of anxiety symptoms among children. These symptoms may include a series of physical sensations (i.e. increased heartbeat, dilated pupils, “butterflies” in the stomach, nausea, dizziness, sweaty hands), cognitive processes (black-and-white thinking, focus on the worst case scenario), and emotional experiences (sense of fear and/or anger). While these symptoms can feel uncomfortable, they in fact just indicate our system is revving up to cope effectively with a challenge. Children sometimes struggle describing these symptoms effectively and rather focus on physiological manifestations (“My stomach hurts”, “I am not feeling well”). Sometimes, they resort to overt anger and behaviors. Their anger may be turned against the source of their anxiety (for example “I hate the new school”), or displaced onto parents, siblings, friends, etc.
If your child exhibits these symptoms during the transition, do not worry, and just try to provide them with the appropriate support in the four above-mentioned areas. If the symptoms do not reduce within a few days, you may want to turn to a professional in order to better understand the roots of the anxiety and the best ways to support your child.
About the Author:
Sarah Bloch-Elkouby, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, a researcher, and a post-doctoral fellow at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York, where she also teaches in the residency program. She treats patients who struggle with a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders and trauma. Her clinical orientation follows a flexible mindset that integrates several evidence-based treatment approaches. She presented her clinical work at international conferences and in peer-reviewed publications. Sarah was awarded the ADAA Career Development Leadership Award (practice Track) for 2019-2020.