How to Manage a Peaceful Back-to-School Transition

Posted: February 7, 2019

It’s August 15th, and time to think about back-to-school emotions!

When school is about to start, what’s foremost on your mind?  What clothes do the kids need? Will their backpacks do for another year? How about folders, paper, and pencils? Are iPods allowed?  What time does the bus come?  Are lunches ordered or groceries purchased?

All the “practical” things rise to the surface with the yearly school-start ritual, but what really prepares children for the new school year is emotional readiness.

Maybe your kids are ready to kiss you goodbye and say, “See you after school, Mom!”  If so, you’re feeling very fortunate and sharing in their joyful anticipation.  If, on the other hand, your son or daughter is having some doubts about how it will be in the coming year, now is the time to help ease the fears the best you can.

1. Be mindful of using a tone of voice that doesn’t project “doom” about school.  If you’re not sure, ask another adult to listen to you and give feedback.  An example would be: “You know, once school starts, you’re going to have a lot more work to do and it’s not going to be easy.”  All the child hears is, “School will be horrible and I feel trapped.”

2. Instead of doom voice, use a realistic, encouraging voice.  Place your trust in the child’s ability to adjust smoothly.  “I know you’ll feel good about school once it gets started.  Think of all the kids you’ll see who haven’t been around all summer. ” Your child hears, “Dad thinks I’ll be OK.”

3. If your child struggles academically, remind him or her of the help that’s available. “Remember how Mrs. Carter was there for you last year, and you really made progress on your math?  She’ll be there when school starts, ready to help again!” Your child thinks, “Oh yeah, I forgot that some parts of school aren’t scary, like when I’m with Mrs. Carter and she explains things.”

4. Talk about taking things one step at a time.  Most kids panic because they feel they were supposed to already have done the current task by now.  Slowing down to allow them to truly absorb the material is the most helpful way to approach this.  “It seems like a big assignment, but it will really just be lots of little ones strung together.  I’ll get you started, and be sure to only do one small thing at a time.” Here’s another example where slowing down actually speeds up the process, as the defeated tantrum doesn’t have to occur.

5. Listen to the child’s expression of feelings without dismissing them.  “You’re really feeling worried,” tells the child, “I see you.”  No need to fix or talk him out of his worry.  Just listening can be so healing.

6. If your child struggles socially, instill confidence by saying, “I know it was rough last year when the kids teased you.  Let’s talk about how to respond or not respond when they do that this year.  Remember to ask an adult for help if the kids on the playground get too rough.  Remember to walk away when they say mean things.  Remember that you are keeping your power, and not giving it away by getting angry and getting into trouble.  And don’t forget that you had a great time with Simone on the playground last year.  I wonder how her summer was!”

For more help with back-to-school worries, click here to learn how parent coaching can be very useful. 

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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