The birds are chirping, the leaves and grass are a healthy shade of green, and temperatures are moderate. Ahh, spring.
While spring symbolizes rebirth, it also ushers in some endings. One such ending is the school year. For many school-age children, it’s an exciting time of year. Soon, they will be done with homework and off to enjoy a carefree summer.
Yet for other students, particularly those who are graduating from elementary, middle, or high school, or whose families are moving to a new place with a new school, the end of the school year can be stressful. They’re leaving a place they’ve grown familiar and (hopefully) comfortable with, and are headed off to the unknown.
What can teachers and parents do to help their children/students overcome that anxiety and enjoy the exciting time of school endings/graduation?
Talking With Your Child
The lead up to graduation can induce nerves. Dr. Andrea Riskin of ProPsych Associates of New Jersey (and mother of three) specializes in parenting, the treatment of anxiety disorders, and ADHD. Dr. Riskin says, “Parents should periodically check in with their child and pay attention to the child’s behaviors.”
However, parents should not question the child excessively. The conversation, according to Dr. Riskin should happen naturally and not come completely out of the blue.
“For example, if your child is going to college and the two of you are getting supplies for the dorm room, ask then. It makes senses to have the conversation at that point. Ultimately, however, you need to follow your child’s lead.”
And what exactly is a parent to ask?
Dr. Riskin says parents can ask their children such questions as, “What are you anxious about? What are you afraid of?” She says the goal of this is to, “understand their internal dialogue and help guide them towards positive self- talk. For example, ‘I’m anxious about going to a new school and at the same time I will go in with confidence and know that I can thrive.'”
One way to encourage positivity in your children is to help them remember past challenges overcome.
David Stanley is an author and veteran teacher (and a parent of one) whose experience includes 13 years in a rural public school in South East Michigan and two years in a private high school in Flint, Michigan. Recently, Stanley was talking with a student — we’ll call him Joseph. Joseph, who is heading off to the University of Michigan next fall, is the first in his family to go to college. As the school year has neared its conclusion, Joseph’s anxiety has grown.
The goal: Understand a student’s internal dialogue and help guide them towards positive self- talk.
“I have conversations with students about their next challenges, and remind them of challenges they overcame and times they stretched and succeeded. Hearing it from someone else can ease their fears,” says Stanley.
Dr. Riskin recommends parents do this as well. “When your child is expressing anxiety about moving forward in life, you can offer a reminder that he/she has done this countless times before. Whether it’s taking that risk on the baseball field and deciding to give it one’s all at-bat to other milestones in their life like graduations from kindergarten, middle school, and of course high school. Parents can normalize the fear and at the same time remind their child that while they might have the initial fear of moving on, practice and patience will make the situation better.”
Familiar Faces (or Places)
When it came time for Stanley’s son to enter high school, he was very fortunate. Stanley had a friend who was teaching at the high school. “I introduced my son to my friend who offered to help. He served as an adult who was a familiar/friendly face and someone my son could turn to,” says Stanley.
He advocates trying to make contact over the summer with your kids’ teachers and find one who will be around during a building walk-through. “That teacher can serve as an anchor, so the child knows at least one person and has someone looking out for them.”
Another way to breed familiarity is by a visit to the new school while it’s in session. When a visit happens during the school day, students can get a sense of the pace of the new school. Stanley recommends having incoming students also be told about the various “student activities available at the new school so they can get excited about their options.”
Stanley tries to prepare his seniors for college. He does so by “mimicking as best as I can the college environment with the goal of helping my students learn self-efficacy.” This is an important theme for Stanley who cautions parents about being over-engaged.
As children move up the system, they will be less sheltered. The need to be able to stand up for oneself becomes more important. Therefore, Stanley advises, “Anything you can do to get your child out of the house and support his/her ability to make decisions on his/her own will benefit them when it’s time to make the transition.” Stanley sees camp as a great opportunity for children to make decisions. “Kids learn to make decisions without mom and dad around, safe decisions because of the counselors, and how to deal with the consequences of their choices. While they may be small decisions, they are the foundational decisions that help kids grow.”
Dr. Riskin also advocates self-empowerment. “Sometimes people catastrophize and don’t recognize its anxiety talking. You can remind your children that they can make it through and empower themselves.”
Transitions happen throughout life and can be challenging for all of us. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Dr. Riskin says, “Some anxiety is good and normal. You need anxiety to motivate, protect, and problem solve.” So, be there for your child and support him/her as they go through transitions. Anxiety might be part of the mix, but there are ways to minimize it.
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