Teach Your Child Coping Skills Before Heading Back to School

Little boy walks to school with backpack

It’s that time when parents are preparing to send their children back to school!
Start with a good sleep schedule and evening routine about a week before school begins. We call this “sleep hygiene.” Good sleep hygiene is more effective for quality sleep than taking sleep medication. It includes an evening routine that signals the brain it is time for bed. This may include a snack, bath, brushing teeth and reading time.
It does not include looking at electronics because they emit a type of light that tells the brain to stay awake. Avoid those devices for one to two hours before expecting to be asleep. A restful night’s sleep should result in waking up happier the next morning and better attention and concentration for your little one.
Speaking of attention and concentration, parents ask how to optimize these skills for better school performance. For the majority of children, attention and concentration are skills that are continuously developing as the brain grows. A kindergartener who turns 6 years old at the beginning of the school year will likely have much better attention and concentration than one who turns 6 at the end of the school year.

Sarah Wakefield, M.D.

Some kiddos have symptoms which warrant medication to improve attention and concentration but for most, simple interventions work. Children's brains require frequent breaks from structured activity. For every 40 minutes of learning, kids’ brains benefit from a 15-minute break of moving their bodies through play, preferably outdoors. This can improve attention and concentration as well as emotional regulation.
Difficulty regulating emotions might come from sitting still but it also may signal that the child needs support. Transitions can be difficult but if a child seems to worry more than peers, it can be helpful to provide strategies. What is definitely NOT helpful is avoiding the worry by not talking about it or delaying dealing with the worry. Avoidance causes fear of the stressor to grow.
Strategizing with coping skills increases a child’s sense of control. If a child talks about a stressor happening at school, ask, “What could you do if that happens?” This approach helps them improve problem-solving skills and effective navigation of stressors they are likely to face more than once.
Role playing can also be effective. If a child is very nervous about the new school year, arrange to visit the school before the school year begins. This can be done at Meet the Teacher night, but because of the extra people at the school, it can be overwhelming.
For many children, these strategies will help them ease into school. However, if the child is not acting like the kid you know, talk with your pediatrician. Some children benefit from talking with a therapist.

Parent talking to child

If a child is worried about bullying, use the problem-solving approach described above to help children realize that bullying behavior has nothing to do with the “victim.” That person just happens to be the target. Ask, “What do you think might be going on with that kiddo that would have them act so mean toward another person?” Phrased this way moves the problem from the “victim” to the “bully.”
Those words are in quotes because there is so much truth to it. Children act out what is modeled for them or what is done to them. Bullying behaviors are more common in children who have witnessed these behaviors in role models and in those who have been the victims of bullies or trauma.
It is important for the parent of the “victim” to let the school know what is happening so the school can wrap services around the identified bully and help that child navigate toward more socially appropriate behaviors. If a child continues to feel victimized, if it becomes physical, or if the child is in danger, get the teacher and school administration involved. We must teach children that we believe in their abilities to navigate this world effectively, but they are not alone. We are here as a resource and to be helpful especially when it comes to keeping our children safe.
Visit www.stopbullying.gov for more tips. I wish you all a happy transition back to school this year!
Sarah Mallard Wakefield, M.D., is chair for the Department of Psychiatry of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine.

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