happy (new) school year

BY SARA SCHWARTZ GLUCK, Phd, LCSW and jonathan cohen, psyd

As this (seemingly short) summer draws to an end, it's time to prep our children for the new school year. Like any new situation, beginning a new grade may trigger both excitement and anxiety.

Commonly Believed Myth
I
f my child has the right shoes, the right backpack, and the right supplies, s/he will feel confident and be successful at school. The 'right' clothes and supplies often change each year along with fashions and fads. As caring and devoted parents, we may feel obligated to buy things that strain our budgets or seem excessive. After all, we want our children to have every advantage they could in order to start the year on the right foot. The problem is, there may be someone in your child’s class who has an even cooler backpack or more expensive shoes. Or (gasp!) your child may sit down at her desk on the first day of school and find that the designer sweater she is wearing is SO last year. Then what?

Fact: True confidence can't be bought. Rather, it is borne through developing healthy ways to cope with life situations. While school supplies and clothes can help a child appear confident for a little while, s/he will inevitably face classroom or playground scenarios that require more than just the right sneakers. You can help your child prepare for those situations by giving him or her the opportunity to express their worries before school starts and as the year goes on. Allow your child to tell you what is bothering them, how and with who they expect to have a hard time instead of making assumptions.

The beginning of the school year is a great time to set the foundation for adaptive coping and communication. At our practice, we have been preparing parents and children for successful transitioning. We’ve noticed that parents often tend to project their own anxieties onto their children. They may assume that because that because their child struggled with friends last year they will struggle this year as well. One parent went so far as to name her own social anxiety “the family curse,” which, of course, led her children to believe that they were destined to have no friends.

Why do some children develop anxiety about school?

There are multiple influences impacting the development of anxiety disorders in youth. These range from biological predispositions to environmental factors such as a competitive class or loss of a loved one. However, one important medium for development of anxiety disorders is parental attitudes and behavior. Before we dismiss this assertion with, "of course the therapist is blaming the parents again,” let us explain. Anxiety is mediated by our thinking- what we perceive as dangerous or threatening in some way as well as how we see our ability to cope with the identified threat. Just like we learn behavior patterns from those closest to us (sorry parents!) we also pick up on anxious thoughts and anxiety provoking appraisals by those who love us.

Sam sat in the big desk and listened to his teacher explain how to add fractions. There were a lot of numbers scribbled all over the whiteboard. The other kids were filling out answers in their workbooks, and Sam watched quietly while chewing his brand new pencil. “What if I write the wrong answer? What if I make a mistake and the teacher sees? He’ll think I’m dumb and then I’ll never pass third grade!” Sam remembered his mother saying that it was very important to do really good work, especially at the beginning of the year. She sounded very serious when she said that. Sam knew that he wouldn’t be able to answer all the questions. The numbers on the board began blurring together. Sam put his pencil down and let his mind wander to the football game he planned to play at recess.

Although Sam was an intelligent boy who was capable of learning new mathematical concepts, his mind frame made math seem scary and impossible. Sam’s mother may have had the best intentions when she spoke with him; she may have thought that she was motivating him to do his best. However, the words she used gave Sam the idea that just trying hard is not good enough. This is one way in which parental beliefs influence the way that children think and behave. Had Sam’s mother said, “Making mistakes is a normal part of learning new things, I just want you to try your best,” Sam may have felt more confident when faced with his math assignment.

As parents, we each have beliefs and assumptions about the world we live in. For example, we may believe that authority figures cannot be trusted, or that touching doorknobs will lead to catching the flu, or that popular kids are mean. However, we may not realize that we may be overgeneralizing or assuming the worst and passing those viewpoints to our children. Kids can pick up subtle verbal and nonverbal cues. If they witness us rolling our eyes when we read the school handbook, they will likely form the opinion that school rules are ridiculous. By keeping our anxieties, fears, or disillusionment to ourselves, we provide our children with a clean slate for experiencing the new school year.

Practical tips for talking to your child about school:

1. Ask: “What are you excited about? Is there anything you are worried about?” Your child may say he has no worries about school. You may be worried about his learning disability, his shyness, or his tendency to eat nothing during the whole school day. At this point in the conversation, DO NOT bring up your fears or concerns. Doing so would create unnecessary fears or anxiety. Rather, just allow your child to tell you what is on his mind.

2. Validate. Empathize with your child. Let him/her know that it is okay and normal to feel what s/he is feeling. “Feeling worried about friends is normal. I feel that way too when I meet new people.”

3. If your child is worried about something, Say: “What are some things you can do when ________ (source of anxiety) happens?” Help her come up with her own solutions. You can guide your child by providing examples of what other children may do in the same situation. You may be tempted to tell her all the great ways you would deal with the problem, but this may interfere with her ability to develop problem-solving skills of her own.

4. Prevent: There may be some concerns that you have about your child’s functioning at school, based on real evidence such as problems that your child faced last year. If there is a problem that you are worried about, in may be productive to discuss it with your child AFTER completing steps 1-3. Help him come up with some ways that he can address the problem. Also, it may be helpful to communicate with your child’s teachers or school faculty before the problem becomes a crisis.

Remember, we can provide our children with the actual tools for a successful school year by allowing them to develop beliefs that are independent from our beliefs as parents, by encouraging them to discuss their experiences with you, and by guiding them to learn how to solve their own problems instead of solving problems for them.

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