Times of transition are psychologically important. Transitions can be times of personal growth that lead to an improved sense of self-efficacy (our belief in our personal capabilities and ability to influence our own lives). Transitions can also be times of significant stress. If they are not handled well, transitions can lead to backsliding, or a sense that we are worse off than before the transition occurred. For example, some people break up from an unhealthy relationship, only to find themselves quickly falling into a relationship that is even worse.
The transition to the new school year, from kindergarten to college, may bring particular challenges for some children and families. While it would be ridiculous for me believe that I could comment on even a fraction of the many different types of transitions that are associated with back to school time, it seems important to highlight some of the common transition challenges that occur at this time of year. Knowing the early signs of common school transition problems can help parents, students, and teachers adjust to challenging transitions without letting a small difficulty grow into a major problem.
Three common issues which may require extra attention during the start of a new school year include: 1) anxiety about going to school (“school phobia”); 2) difficulties in peer relationships including bullying; 3) academic difficulties/risk for school dropout.
School phobia is a persistent, unrealistic fear of going to school. Most frequently seen in younger children (early elementary school), school phobia is often linked to separation anxiety. In children, phobias or anxieties are often displayed through avoidance, behavior problems like tantrums, or physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches. Children who have school phobia may say that they are worried about what may happen to their parents while they are in school, or find other reasons that they shouldn’t go to school. They may ask for excessive reassurance about going to school.
The most important coping strategy for school phobia is to help your child deal with their anxiety without establishing a pattern that allows them to miss school or require excessive steps to get them to school. As with any childhood problem, it is first important to listen, give encouragement, and ask questions (for example, “What makes leaving for school so hard?”) Sometimes having a child ride with a friend (bus or car) can help. Or, try giving your child a small transition object – something from home that they can carry in their backpack during the day.
Problems with peer relationships, including bullying, can develop at any age, but are particularly associated with pre-teen and early teenage years. Most parents are well aware that relationships with peers are a central focus for children this age. Thus, problems with peers often translate to problems with school. Bullying, one type of peer problem, is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions. Research suggests that about one in five (17%) of school age children report being bullied sometimes or often.
Relationship problems take so many different forms that broad suggestions for ways to cope are likely to fall short. As with any problem, listening to your child and asking gentle questions is a
great place to start. Ask them what they have tried to do to address the problem, and how well their ideas have worked. Cheer them when they find a useful solution. Be there to listen when their solutions fall short. If bullying is a problem, consider enlisting the help of school guidance counselors or administrators. Many schools have given a great deal of thought and effort to reducing bullying.
Academic struggles are important at any age. In high school or college, academic struggles increase the risk for school dropout. Time and again, research shows that high school dropout is associated with a increased risk for a variety of problems throughout adult life. If the transition to a new school year starts of badly in terms of academic performance, early intervention is critical.
It is important to consider for a moment what happens to most teenagers in terms of how they look at themselves. Research suggests that children normally become more self-critical and negative in their opinion of themselves (not just their parents!) as they enter their early teenage years. As schoolwork becomes more difficult, teenagers may be filled with doubt about their abilities and skills. Poor grades may be one sign of this. Sometimes teenagers express dislike for a subject or teacher partly due to their own self-doubts. It is important that, whenever possible, they make a successful transition to new challenges at school.
One idea to help with difficult academic transitions includes remembering that, when it comes to school effort matters. This may sound like one of those dumb sayings that your parents or grandparents used to recite. However, both common sense and psychological research shows that there is a positive correlation between effort and performance in school.
In supporting a student who is struggling, look for improvement, not perfection. When possible, enlist both emotional and technical support. Friends, teachers, parents, and siblings can all provide different types of support. Help your child feel like they aren’t isolated in dealing with their struggles.
Most school transitions are successfully navigated by children, teenagers, young adults, and families. I am always proud of the resilience and resourcefulness of my own children during the start of a new school year. However, if the transition isn’t going well, try to change course. For every problem there are dozens of ways to cope. Truly.