Emphasize the Positive When Talking to Children About Returning to School

Friday, August 24, 2007

"Taking time to talk with and listen to children about the upcoming school year is one of the best ways parents can help them make the transition to school life," says David Smith, PhD, clinical child psychologist in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Dr. Smith advises parents to begin talking about school a couple weeks before it starts, and to listen closely for their children's fears or concerns. "Make sure there's good communication," he says.

How parents talk to their children, as well as what they say, are both important. Parents should catch the moment when fears or worries are expressed, and empathize by saying something like, "It sounds like you're kind of worried about this next year," Dr. Smith advises. He also says that parents should reassure children that the parents will be there to help them.

Preschoolers and kindergartners need to know what will happen

"For preschoolers and kindergartners who are anxious about going to school for the first time, parent should try some 'desensitization,'" Dr. Smith says. He suggests the parents help their children adjust by taking their children to visit their school, playing on the school's playground, meeting their teacher and talking about what happens in a school day. Parents can also choose children's books about school life to help their child understand what to expect in school. "It's called bibliotherapy -- reading books for the purpose of helping to get into their minds the social story about what can be expected," Dr. Smith says.

"There even are some lovely books about kids who goof up," he says, citing Beverly Cleary's series on spunky "Ramona Quimby." In addition, television shows that help children learn about school basics, such as "Blues Clues," "Dora the Explorer" and "Sesame Street" can help young children become prepared for what they will learn at school. Some libraries may also carry the "Mr. Rogers'" series on going to school, which is an excellent set of shows devoted to the child who will soon enter school.

Tears inevitably will be part of younger children's return to school, but Dr. Smith advises parents to rely on teachers to comfort their children. "Teachers are pretty skilled at helping children make a good transition," he says. "Teachers are the ones who should decide how long the parent remains. Usually when the parent leaves, the crying stops quickly." If crying continues for more than a few days, parents may want to tuck some small tokens into their children's backpacks, such as photos of the family or parents.

Older children respond to new beginnings

For elementary school children, Dr. Smith advises making returning to school something special. "Take them shopping for new school clothes," he suggests. An outing to buy new school supplies also can be fun. Even if school supply lists include specific items, parents should allow children some freedom to buy something they want, such as a particularly cool pencil pack, he says.

With older children and teens, parents should emphasize that going back to school is a new beginning. "If there were some trials from the prior year, rather than encouraging negative thinking, talk about how it will be a new teacher, a new set of things to learn and, likely, new friends," Dr. Smith says. The notion of a fresh start is usually appealing to children, and can help neutralize bad feelings about school.

"If a child has an extreme dread of school, have specialists evaluate the child for learning disabilities, family issues or other potential causes," Dr. Smith says. "If it's more like, 'I hate school because it's not as fun as summer,' talk about some of the positive things about schools."

Parents should remind their children about what they enjoy about school -- even if it's simply football, band or the yearbook. In fact, children who are involved in extracurricular activities tend to do better academically in school. "When they're active and feel connected to their school, they have another reason to do better," Dr. Smith says. "And if they're on a sports team, they have to keep good grades." In addition, if students enjoy the after-school activities, positive feelings tend to spread to in-school work as well, he says. Conveying a sense of optimism regarding the child's success can also be helpful for enhancing a child's motivation and sense of hope.

Teens need positive reinforcement

For adolescents, it also may be helpful to set goals -- an exercise that can be used to turn a negative school experience into a positive plan. For example, if teenagers dread school because they were disorganized and fell behind last year, parents can help their children set a goal of becoming more organized, and help them achieve it by buying a daily planner, showing them how to use it to meet class assignments and monitoring it for the first couple of weeks, Dr. Smith says. "Young adolescents, especially ones entering middle school, probably really need to be ready to be organized."

For parents who didn't like school themselves, it may be hard to be positive about school with their children. "Parents have to acknowledge that," Dr. Smiths says. "Tell the child, 'You know, I didn't like school work, but I did it because it was a means to an end. I did the best I could.' "

Communication is a key factor for parents to build good relationships with children, from preschool-age into the teen years. Allowing children to talk things through with an adult helps them successfully deal with changes in their lives.

As children get older, parents may note their growing independence and believe their children need them less and less. Yet, surveys have found that teenagers wish for more time, more contact with their parents, Dr. Smith pointed out.

"Offer to be there for your children, if it means going along for the first day at middle school or simply helping them with schoolwork. I can see teens feeling a wonderful sense of hope to know that their parent is available," he says.

Parents should also remember that children of all ages need and benefit from praise and respect for their efforts, even if they fall short of honors. "Even though they may find it painful that they only get C's, you have to respect them for their integrity and their effort," he says. "That shows courage."

Cincinnati Children's, one of the top five children's hospitals in the nation according to Child magazine, is a 475-bed institution devoted to bringing the world the joy of healthier kids. Cincinnati Children's is dedicated to providing care that is timely, efficient, effective, family-centered, equitable and safe. For its efforts to transform the way health care is provided, Cincinnati Children's received the 2006 American Hospital Association-McKesson Quest for Quality Prize". Cincinnati Children's ranks second nationally among all pediatric centers in research grants from the National Institutes of Health and is a teaching affiliate of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. The Cincinnati Children's vision is to be the leader in improving child health.

Contact Information

Danielle Lewis, 513-636-9473,