Beating the Back-to-School Blues

Posted: February 7, 2019

Tina Feigal, M.S., Ed.

Copyright © 2013 Center for the Challenging Child

Is your child worried about starting school, saying she doesn’t want to go, and resisting your efforts to calm her fears? As the beginning of the school year approaches, here are some powerful suggestions for smoothing your child’s path to a new academic year.

“The most helpful thing you can do is to casually let your child know that you are comfortable with the start of the school year, you think of it as routine, and you are there for him as he makes the transition. If you think of it as a crisis, so will your child.

Use these seven tips to help you and your child prepare for the upcoming school year.

1. Listen deeply to your child. Reflect how he feels back to him in clear words. When fears start to arise, make eye contact, showing that you really care and say, “I can tell you are worried about the kids on the bus being bullies.” Then end the conversation. It is amazing how just calmly acknowledging the fear helps it to dissipate.

2. Regulate bedtime now. Too many children start the school year exhausted because they adjust their summer “staying-up-late” schedule to “early rising” the day before school starts. Instead, institute a routine of 8 p.m. bedtime and 7 a.m. rising one week in advance. Even though it is still light out at 8, kids need their sleep so badly that it’s in their best interests to do this so that they have adjusted and are ready for the challenges of a new school year. This is vitally important particularly when the child is changing schools.

3. Read books about going back to school with young children. David Goes Back to School by David Shannon is an example of an excellent picture book for children ages 4-7. Audrey Penn’s The Kissing Hand, published by the Child Welfare League of America, is just the right book for any child taking that fledgling plunge into preschool–or for any youngster who is temporarily separated from home or loved ones. Many more resources are available through online book stores.

4. Develop a plan for the first day of school. You may even want to set out clothes and backpacks to rehearse the school morning, so that kids can predict exactly how it will go. This will reduce anxiety for everyone, including parents. Being able to adjust your routine to fit your needs when there is no time stress is a perfect way to get off on the right foot.

5. Encourage your child to think of solutions. If your son has repeated a fear to you several times in the past week, resist the temptation to reassure him with “truths” such as,

“The teacher will like you. Don’t worry about that,” or

“You will know how to find your bus. The monitor will help you,” or

“Of course you are smart enough to go to fourth grade!”

Often the child gets little real comfort from this type of statement. If he has a substantial amount of fear, his mind will go immediately to an argument for almost anything you say. Instead, ask “How?”

“How do you think the teacher will get to know you?”

“How do you think kids find their buses on the first day?”

“How do you think the work in fourth grade compares to the work in third grade? Do you think there will be any review from last year?”

This way the child learns to think, rather than just get enveloped in fear. And when he comes up with his own thoughts about the fearful situation, he can accept them better … no need to argue!

6. Place trust in your child. When driving in the car or at bedtime, say, “I was just thinking of all the ways I trust you. You are so good with your little sister, and I am so proud of that. You play with the dog so nicely, and you are such a good master to her. You can tell she trusts you, too. I can trust you to respond when I call you in from outside. You are just a trustworthy person!” This plants the seed for self-trust in your child, which is vital to adjusting to the new school year. No need to talk directly about school. Simply planting the message of trustworthiness is enough.  It also staves off resistance to your encouragement.  No more, “Dad, I KNOW!  You don’t have to keep telling me!”

7. Tell stories of your own school experiences. As adults we often forget to share our childhood tales with our own kids. They think we can’t understand them, because we are big and they are little. It’s so helpful to remind our children that we were kids once, too. It increases our credibility to show them that we have experience, and that we have overcome obstacles. So share the stories of your success with challenging situations, so kids realize they are not the only ones who face these things. A sense of camaraderie with one’s parents is a wonderful family-builder!

If you could use Tina’s support as you help your child adjust to school, call 651-453-0123 or e-mail today to set up an appointment!

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I See You Letter

“I See You” Letter

Another tool for helping a child with a traumatized brain, or any child who is asking for attention by showing unwanted behavior, is an “I see you” letter. When something is put into writing, it weighs more. The child can read the message without having to hear the adult’s voice, which is more effective because adult voices have sometimes not proven trustworthy in the past. I encourage caregivers to write the letter in a notebook, so the child can write back, if she so chooses, and review the letter at any time. The re-reading can be very healing. When I’ve encouraged other adults to write this type of letter, they’ve told me that they’ve found it later, stashed in a drawer or other safe spot, but never thrown away, which speaks to its significance to the child.

               You can write a letter to a child of any age. If she is old enough to read, just leave it on her pillow. If not, write it out and read it slowly, then hand it to her.

               If the child is so hurt that listening to you read a letter is too much, try posting notes that say what you see in her all over her room. Use the components below to craft your letter or your notes.
               The components of the “I See You Letter” are:

  1. I see what you've been through (in details that are significant to her, maybe just the things you know she remembers). You may want to add, "And other things, too, that we haven't talked about." This could spark a response where she shares more.
  2. In light of your experiences, I realize that none of your recent behavior is your fault. You were just trying to express your pain.
  3. I'm sorry I blamed you when I just didn't realize that your behavior was your pain being expressed.
  4. Together we'll work on making it better, and here's how: ______

An example:

Dear Ana,

I just wanted to tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a kid who has had some very rough experiences. When you were younger, your adults did not do what they needed to do to keep you safe. No child should have this happen, as every child deserves and needs to be kept safe. Your mom left you with people who hurt you, and your dad left without saying why. That must hurt so much. I want you to know that this was never, ever your fault. You were an innocent child.

I see a kid who is sensitive and smart. I see a kid who is amazing at figuring out other people. I so appreciate hearing you express what you know long before others your age can do that. I see a kid with artistic ability, and one who cares deeply for our pets. When I watch you with younger children, I am so impressed with how tender you are.

I realize I have gotten angry with you and yelled when you were upset with me. I now get that you just felt threatened, and you did not mean to hurt my feelings or disrespect me. I’m sorry and I will try very hard not to yell in the future. If I make a mistake and yell (because we all make mistakes), I will apologize and have a do-over, because no one deserves to be yelled at.

If you feel like writing back to me in this notebook, that’s great. Feel very free to do so. If not, I’m fine with that, too. I’m just happy to be able to use this notebook to say what I want to tell you in writing.

I am so happy you are in my life. Thank you for all the gifts you give me, especially your smile.


Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Other caregiver

I encourage adults not to ever mention the letter, nor to expect him to say he read it and liked it. For a traumatized child, this may be too much vulnerability. But what often happens is that adults notice a softening in their child, a better attitude, more affection, more focus, and more cooperation. That’s the goal of writing: to see the child clearly, communicate it, allow the amygdala to register that the child is seen and therefore will survive, watch the result in a much more relaxed and relieved child and in an improved relationship. I often describe this process as being “like physics,” as predictable as proven science. It’s truly remarkable how dramatic the results are! And when you think about it, the seeing is the tool for calming the threat alarm. No wonder the child can now function so much more rationally. The more rational front brain is able to work!

I See You Letter