The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

August 8, 2013

Sarah Coyne: School year's start stressful for children

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Each year when school starts again, I get that old familiar feeling. It takes in the aisles of school supplies. It sprouts out of new tennis shoes. It blossoms through shouldered backpacks.

It's excitement, fresh and sweet.

I'm sure my children are feeling it, too. But as with any transition, their emotions are probably tied up in a hundred combinations. Everything on a sliding scale from complete preparedness to overwhelming fear might be taking up space in their hearts.

For elementary-age kids, the transition into a new year of school can be especially barbed with difficulties. On top of new classrooms and teachers, these kids are at the age where the learning of social graces is as confusing as any academic business.

Kindergartners may have never been in a group setting filled with so many differing perspectives and personalities, making the navigation of friendships and playgrounds feel foreign and vast. Third graders might be watching peer groups shift and shuffle, and begin to feel uncertain of their roles. Fifth graders could be feeling the beginnings of scholastic pressure and the doubts that they can live up to expectations.

As with many new things, it isn't until the first exciting days race past that we begin to notice the ways our kids are being affected. The bright newness wears away, leaving spots of worry that can be expressed in unusual behaviors and unexpected meltdowns.

Even if your kids are past the age of crying as you walk away from their classroom, don't underestimate the reality of their emotions. Big kids are still processing the shift back to school, even if they've had years of practice.

Whether your kids are newly academic or seasoned pros, one important thing for parents to remember at the start of a new school year is to be better listeners than talkers. Don't be quick with advice or ideas for handling the stress better.

Instead, offer observations that will enable your kids to give voice to the truth of their worries. Simply repeating what you see when you look at them is an easy way to get this process started.

When they walk in the door after a rough day, instead of asking what's wrong, point out the obvious: "You look like you need a hug." This provides an opening to let them air their grievances and is especially helpful if parents can refrain from judgment.

Empathy, rather than unsolicited problem-solving, will be more beneficial to your kids both in the short-term and for the future. You can affirm their emotions without trying to change them.

Helping your kids to navigate the new feelings brought on by going back to school is about more than that one, single moment Ñ it's about showing them that they can handle any transition that comes their way.

And with any luck, an extension of that fresh, sweet excitement will dull the fear into remission.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog,