Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Practical Advice from Communicating about “Back-to-School Jitters”

August 1, 2010
Interpersonal Communication

As you read this, it's just a few weeks before youngsters head back to school after the summer break. Many young people happily anticipate the return to school, as they will be reunited with old friends. However, for some children, the first day of school is not happily anticipated, but rather is feared. For some, it may be the first time attending school away from home. Others might be going to a new school due to a change in family circumstances. Still others may be moving up to middle or high school. Any of these circumstances could be cause for great concern to the youngsters making the transition.

So, how can parents and other interested adult caregivers communicate with children to help them to make these important transitions successfully? I asked the communication experts and here is their advice….

The beginning of a new school year can be a time of fear and stress for young students. Experts recommend a coping strategy utilizing the “what if” game, where concerned adults pose hypothetical situations their child may encounter at school. They then help their child devise ways of handling these challenges. For example, a parent or caregiver might ask: “What would you do if no one sits with you at lunch?” They then help the child devise a specific plan for coping with this stress-inducing situation. 

Fran C. Dickson, Ph.D.,
Chapman University

First, teachers are professionally-trained child communicators. Parents and children should listen and follow teachers' leads and guidance. Second, communication at school is different from home. Long before the first day of school, parents should help children learn and practice public communication skills for use at school—terms of address (Mrs. Smith), politeness (please and thank you), decorum (inside voice), appropriateness (everyone gets their turn to talk), and more. And, third, after school, asking concrete questions (“Did your teacher read a story today? What was it about?”) will help children recall specific events to share.  

Thomas J. Socha, Ph.D.,
Old Dominion University 

Diana M. Socha,
Star of the Sea Regional School 

Parents can help children with the transition to separation or divorce by keeping teachers posted on family changes so they may be sensitive to stressors children may be experiencing. Co-parents need to negotiate how to handle school events like parent-teacher conferences, sports, or performances. Co-parents need to be careful to keep the children at the center of their focus and attention and, at the same time, avoid children becoming caught in the middle between them.  

Dawn O. Braithwaite, Ph.D.,
University of Nebraska 

One of the biggest comforts to your child is learning about your own experiences in school. If you felt anxious at a similar age, tell your child. If you have an older child, enlist him or her to share experiences and anxieties that were experienced at that same stage. The key to productive family discussions is to make sure that you never make your child feel bad about being anxious or fearful about school. A new school year can be a time of excitement, great discovery, and renewal. As parents, we can help our children reap the benefits by showing our children that worries about a new school year can be overcome.  

Jennifer A. Samp, Ph.D.,
University of Georgia 

Parents and caregivers of a struggling child can help her be successful by talking with her about her concerns. Don't make assumptions or trivialize the child's concerns. As a therapist, I work with children who feel alone and whose parents are inadvertently critical or blaming. Keep an open mind and be curious. Work first to understand, then offer age-appropriate advice and support. Don't be afraid to seek consultation with parents, teachers, or helping professionals. 

Rachel Tambling, Ph.D.,
University of Connecticut 

Do you want to help your child make a positive transition into the upcoming school year? Start by discussing the positive experiences your child had in previous grades or schools. Then, have your child describe how each experience made the year successful. Finally, have your child discuss how he/she can apply these experiences to the upcoming school year. By encouraging your child to reflect upon positive past school experiences, you are helping him/her to have a plan for success. 

David H. Kahl, Jr., Ph.D.,
Penn State Erie, The Behrend College 

Adult caregivers should take care to verbally and nonverbally confirm their children's concerns and areas of excitement because their confirming behaviors are associated with children's attachment security as well as their children's own willingness to disclose topics of concern. Caregivers can do this verbally by acknowledging the legitimacy of the child's concern (e.g., a caregiver who says “that would be scary” when the child mentioned being concerned about not knowing anyone) and nonverbally by maintaining eye contact, smiling, and showing enthusiasm. 

Elizabeth A. Munz, M.A.,
Steven R. Wilson, Ph.D.,
Purdue University 

An important part of education is learning to get along with people, and opportunities to do so comprise all life's transitions. Everyone you meet is a potential lifelong friend. So wear a friendly face, rely on your senses about people's inner qualities rather than prejudgments based on superficial factors, take time to ask others about themselves while respecting their boundaries and feelings, and share something about yourself. Finally, tell your parents about your new friends. 

Deborah Vance, Ph.D.,
McDaniel College 

Suggest the following to your child: When you can, just join in play with other kids, even if you are not sure how or whether or not you will like it. This is how relationships form. Show you are a good listener by asking a question or two of someone you meet and be able to mention the answer later. People love to be listened to, and that leads to a good relationship. Be willing to talk to people—have a couple of things about yourself you can say or things you like to talk about so you will not be perceived as too quiet or shy. 

John C. Meyer, Ph.D.,
University of Southern Mississippi 

My third-grade child with autism is being moved into a more restrictive environment at a new school. He loves his old school. Although changing schools is difficult for any child, due to his high need for routine and consistency, I have to handle this sensitively. So, I regularly take him to the playground at the new school and let him play there. Now, he is asking me to go to his new school and play.  

Marceline Hayes, Ph.D.,
Arkansas State University 

Something to keep in mind when discussing the first day of school: Fathers and daughters who are most satisfied with their relationship communicate assurances to one another, and communicate overall in a positive manner. They are not negative or condescending when they talk to each other, rather they communicate in ways that provide support and encouragement for both parties. They should tell jokes, share humorous stories, and make time to laugh. They should make time to tell each other that they care and love each other, and are there for each other. 

Narissa Punyanunt-Carter, Ph.D.,
Texas Tech University