Helping Kids Transition Back to School After Winter Break

The festivities are over, the decorations have been put away, and winter break has come to an end. Let the wailing and whining begin! Transitions back to school are usually a stressful time for my son. Days before going back he starts a countdown and the closer we get to the big day, the more irritable he becomes. This can spiral into full on anxiety a couple of days before with excessive worry about the work, the lack of free time, getting up early, etc..


I often see similar responses to the transition with the kids I work with in my practice as well. There are a variety of reasons kids may dread going back to school after an extended break.  Going back to school means a decrease in family time, free time, and fun. Getting back into the routine of waking up earlier and completing academic responsibilities can be tough! For children experiencing social or separation anxiety there can be a real fear of going back to the classroom and leaving their families.


Here are a few ways to help the transition back to school go a little more smoothly.


·      Adjust bedtime gradually several days before the first day back. I usually like to start my blogs with the most obviously tip of all. :-) Of course, this one is a no brainer, but sleep is SO important to your child’s emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing that this would not be a complete list without a mention. Some families may be better than mine at staying on a more consistent schedule during winter break, but for my us it means staying up and sleeping in later than normal.


Start by adjusting bedtime 30 minutes earlier each night for as long as you need to get back on track at least the night before. That first morning will likely still be a struggle, but the long day  ahead will be easier if they have their batteries completely charged!


·      Keep them busy with extra physical activity before going back to school. Kids need to run and be active every day for optimum health, but this is especially true when they may be anticipating the transition back to school. Staying active will help with the physical nervous energies that our bodies need to expel when we are anticipating something. Keeping them active and off of screens for several hours a day will help with their stamina in returning to normal school routines, and will also help with getting them worn out so that the transition to an earlier bedtime is more successful.


·      Validate their feelings and empathize by using fantasy statements. When your child shares their feelings of dread or nervousness about returning to school with you, this is a perfect time to “enter their world” and validate those feelings. I love to use fantasy statements with my son (and often encourage this with the parents I work with) because it can lighten the mood and helps the child feel heard and also normalizes the feelings he may be experiencing. Let me give an example of what that conversation might sound like:


Child: “I wish I didn’t have to go back to school next week because I don’t want to get up early.”


Parent: “I wish you didn’t have to go back to school next week either! I wish we could stay in our pajamas all day and eat all the ice cream we want.”


Child: “And I wish we could stay up late too, and watch movies!”


Parent: “You really enjoyed our family time and a relaxed routine. Going back to school will cut into that. I wish we could spend all of our time together and only have fun all the time too! That would be so great!”


In my experience, just a few moments of indulging their fantasies and validating their feelings through empathy can help them cope with their feelings and the transition more effectively. Give it a try with your own kids! It’s pretty fun for us adults to fantasize too!


·      Talk about what your child can expect the first day back and help to build excitement and ease anxiety. If you have a child with anxiety or sensory processing issues like I do, the importance of talking about what to expect and helping them to integrate what will be experienced when they re-enter the classroom is super helpful! For a child with social anxiety, helping her to think of topics to share with classmates or teachers can be reassuring as well.


Reminding them that everyone will probably have fun new things to share about their winter break can give kids something to look forward to. Your child may already have a special friend or teacher she is looking forward to seeing. Developmentally, depending on the age, your child may not be able to abstractly think about what to expect, but you can help with some age appropriate suggestions.


Making a plan for special outfit, lunch, or after school plans can also help with building excitement for the first day back to school, and children are often more motivated when they can have some control over the process.


·      Plan something special to look forward to at the end of the first week back to school. Because children are so much better than adults at just being present in a moment, this means that they may also have a hard time understanding that the tough part won’t last forever! Every child and family is different in what will be motivating at the end of the week, but it doesn’t have to be extravagant. For our family it means having no plans and allowing for plenty of unstructured play time. Your child may be tired after the week and want some down time or may be ready to go to a park or have a playdate. Whatever works best for your family, make a plan, and remind your child before that first day and throughout the week. It will help them have hope that they will be able to get through this first week.

If you have a child who is looking forward to going back to school already, count your blessings! If transitions are particularly hard for your child or if he or she is having disruptive behavioral issues at home or school, email me for some ways I may be able to help your family.