“Who will be in my class?“
“I hope I don’t have that teacher.”
“Is this year going to be as hard as last year?”
“I hear there is so much homework next year."
Anticipating the start to any school year provokes a sense of wonder, excitement, anxiety and uncertainty for most children. Can you relate to any of the questions and statements listed above? If so, you are certainly not alone. While graduating to the next level of education is a symbol of achievement and success for children, these events are often met with mixed emotions.
When children enter middle and high school, the perceived stakes tend to be much greater, and children may react with heightened responses that had not been previously recognized. Parents are often left wondering - How do I best prepare my child for this new chapter in life? There is no easy answer to this question, and the most effective response can vary from family to family. Parents often reflect back on their own experience entering middle and high school and can appreciate the emotions that children experience. However, as adults, we sometimes forget or underestimate how impactful these hallmark moments were in our lives.
As families approach these important transition points in a child’s education, it may be helpful for parents to consider a few important points:
Create the space to talk about these experiences. Schools will often provide families with a wonderful field guide about how to logistically navigate the first few weeks of school. While it is important to be informed about dismissal protocols and homework policies, these “how to” manuals don’t offer much in terms of how to support children socially and emotionally. Many parents pepper children with a series of questions after the first day of school and are disappointed when they receive little (if any) feedback from their children. Parents should demonstrate authentic interest in their child’s experiences during the first few days of school and be clear that they are there to listen whenever a child wants to discuss his or her experiences. Parents should never underestimate the power of listening to their children as this is the most effective tool in creating warm, supportive conversational spaces.
Reflect back what you think your child may be feeling about this experience. Many children struggle with identifying their feelings while going through such experiences. I consider parents to be experts on their child’s feelings, and it is important for parents to help children put words to what they may be experiencing. Feelings, such as being excited, nervous, frustrated, and happy (yes, happy), are common while children are adjusting to the start to middle school or high school. By actively listening to your child’s experience, you become better attuned to what he or she may be experiencing and can support your child in making deeper connections with the experience.
Be honest about your own feelings (without making this experience all about you). Children are not the only ones experiencing emotions during these moments. You are are allowed to have feelings too - as long as they don’t overshadow your child’s experience. Watching children enter middle and high school can certainly provoke a number of emotions for parents, such as feeling great pride in this accomplishment to a sense of loss at your child becoming increasingly more independent. It is important to be honest with yourself as you walk through these experiences.
Validate the wonderful and challenging parts of a new experience. When people try something for the first time, they often bring to the experience a certain level of curiosity and apprehension. It can be difficult to try something new, especially when it involves so many moving parts as middle and high school education does. Parents should be mindful of how impactful the new experience of being a middle or high school student is and reflect this back to their children in a meaningful and constructive way.
Be patient. All children make it through the first few weeks of middle and high school. What may have seemed like an impossible challenge for your child two weeks ago has magically become something of the past. As with listening, patience can not be underestimated as you support your child in these important transition points in school. Living in the present and showing appreciation for this new experience are great ways to model patience for your child.
As we approach another beginning of the school year, I hope you and your family enjoy a wonderful, exciting and inspiring year ahead of you.
Bill McCarthy is the Head of Pre and Lower School and former Director of Learning Support for grades K-12 at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York.