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How to Start The School Year off Right: Top 4 Issues that Cause a Rocky Start

By Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

The beginning of a new school year can be a mixed blessing for parents: you might be relieved that your child is back in a routine and you no longer are organizing all that down time, as well as dread if you have a child who struggles in school. If your young child has had a rocky start to the school year, you are not alone! The following suggestions can help you start the school year off right — even if they’ve already stumbled.

“Experiencing a few bumps along the way is a normal part of starting something new, so make sure to give yourself a break if you and your child struggle a little in the beginning of the year.”

Related: Kids driving you crazy and not listening? How to parent more effectively.

My Child is Aggressive

“My 5 year old daughter starts kindergarten this year and we are terrified that she will act out. She was kicked out of two pre-schools due to hitting, biting, and basically not interacting well with the other kids. She was aggressive throughout her toddler years, even towards teachers! I’ve talked to her about her behavior but we haven’t seen great results as she doesn’t really seem to care. What should I do?”

First, I’d like you to think of your daughter starting kindergarten as a new beginning for both of you. For your daughter, it will mean a new school, new friends and teachers and a new environment. For you, it will mean beginning a new chapter in your parenting life, filled with re-gaining control of your house, letting your daughter know that you’re in charge and creating an environment in which your daughter feels safe, secure, and ready to tackle kindergarten.

Many young children are aggressive, mainly because they don’t know how else to act in a situation that causes them stress or anxiety. Some children are naturally calm and can self-regulate their mood and actions, others really struggle with this. Since your child acts out more, it is imperative that you assume the role as the adult and that she knows you mean business.

This can be done in a loving manner in which you re-claim your role and she learns how to calm herself. Start by talking to your daughter when she is calm. You can say to her, “I’m so excited for you to start kindergarten! You will have a lot of fun at your new school. But before you begin we’re going to do some new things to make sure you have a great year.”

Then, create a “rules chart” for school and hang it where she can see it. Ask for her input about what the rules are and add them to your list. Some examples can be: “No Hitting,” “No Biting,” “Be Nice to Teachers,” “Be Kind.” Explain to her that she is a big girl now, starting big girl school and she will have to follow these rules. Next to the rules chart, create a “Good Behavior Chart” and lay out colorful stickers or pens where she can place a marking each time she is caught being good at school or home. (Click here for free, downloadable charts from Empowering Parents.) This will encourage her to react differently and motivate her to exhibit good behavior because every kid, even strong-willed ones, love positive reinforcement. Explain to your daughter that when school starts she will have the opportunity to place a sticker on her chart if she shows she can follow the rules. After collecting so many stickers your daughter earns a reward, which can include staying up 20 minutes later that night, extra story time with you, an opportunity to watch a DVD or anything that you think she would like.

If the school year begins and her behaviors persist, talk to the teacher immediately so as to show you are motivated to help your daughter change. Teachers are more likely to work with your daughter and help her along if they know you are on board and taking measures to help her overcome this obstacle. Praise your daughter when she behaves nicely and point out her good behavior whenever you can.

Related: Teach your child how to “behave differently next time.”

My Child Has a Hard Time Making Friends

“My son is going into first grade and we are really worried about his social group. Last year in he was very quiet and seemed to be lagging behind the other kids in social situations, like making friends or playing at recess. He only got invited to one birthday party the entire year even though other kids seemed to be getting together more frequently for parties and for play dates. This breaks my heart and I don’t want this school year to be the same.”

It is really hard to watch your child not be as socially active as other kids, especially when it appears they are being excluded. All parents want their kids to fit in and be accepted. But I’d like you to consider a few things. First, have you talked to your son about how he feels about his social life? Many times when kids hang out with just one or two other children parents assume they are miserable, when in fact many kids prefer one on one play over the manic hustle and bustle that often goes along with young children’s play groups. So make certain that your son views this as a problem before you assume it is one.

Second, during these tender years many parents project their own childhood anxieties onto their kids as they navigate through school. It is not uncommon for parents, who may have struggled socially or were shy, to see their children’s social situations as problematic, when in fact it has more to do with their own feelings around how they were treated by peers during their childhood. This can be a very difficult, yet potentially rewarding time for a parent as they gain insight into their child’s world. A question then to ask yourself is, “Is this my child’s problem or mine?” The answer can propel you into action on behalf of your child or give you the opportunity to pull back and examine your feelings.

Related: How to stop the family anxiety cycle.

Lastly, consider that your child may simply have a different temperament than you. Introverted, reserved or shy children tend to feel overwhelmed in large groups and prefer the quieter play of one buddy.

Having said that, if your child is struggling to make friends and is unhappy, now is the perfect time to help him. Consider asking one or two kids over that your child connects with for week-end play dates or after school get-togethers. Try to do this regularly and get to know the other parents so your child can get invited to their houses as well. If your child wants more friends but lacks the social skills to make them, help him develop these skills. Review how to introduce yourself, how to ask someone to join in a game, or how to share. Tips for making friends can include: request a play date after school, form a team at recess, or pinpoint kids who have shared interests.

Lastly, make sure your child is not annoying other children. Many kids who lack social skills do things inadvertently that make it difficult to form friendships. Examples are kids who are overly bossy, won’t share, or are overly sensitive to their surroundings. By discussing these potential pitfalls with your child you can help them create a better environment for making friends.

My Child Can’t Focus

“My child really has a hard time focusing. He’s going into 3rd grade this year and I’ve heard there’s a lot more reading, writing, and that they have to do math every night. He’d rather run around the room or color than do any of the above. Does he have ADHD and do I need to get him tested”.

There is no exact answer to this question, as it will take time to figure out if your son truly has ADHD or is just a typical 3rd grade boy with a lot of energy. Most boys this age prefer to run, jump and play than sit still in a classroom and learn. Unfortunately, being able to do this is a necessary part of his development, so it is important for you to help him navigate this terrain.

I’d start by having a conference with his teacher, outlining what your concerns are at the beginning of the year. This gives her the opportunity to observe your son’s behavior and academic progress, input that will be imperative if you do have him assessed by a professional. Also, if your son’s 2nd grade teacher is still at school, see if she can join the conference in order to add her perspective. Whether your son has ADHD or not, the skills he will learn from you and the structure he gets from his teacher will aid him throughout his education and development.

Next, I would create a plan that will help your son get organized. Many times the main issue for young kids with focus issues isn’t necessarily a diagnosis of ADHD, but a lack of organization. Buy him a day planner that he can write in everyday any assignments, notes, or things he needs to do at home (ie.,“Get permission slip signed”, “Bring money for party”, “Bring sack lunch for picnic”). It helps to have the teacher sign off on his planner each day to ensure he has the right things written down or to add anything he might have forgotten.

Also, whether with you or with his teacher, have your son clean out his desk, backpack, and cubby area once a week. Set a day, (say Friday’s) and stack notebooks, organize pencils, throw out papers, get rid of old assignments, and bring home water bottles or plastic containers.

At home, set aside a quiet space for your son to do school work and have the necessary materials (pens, pencils, sharpener, paper, etc.) available. If your son is high energy, allow him a cooling off period after school so he can run around, relax, and have a snack before he starts his work. Try to be as consistent with his work routine as possible, explaining that he is to do his work each day at the same time. Break his work into small segments, setting a timer for each. For example, you can say “I’m going to set the timer for 20 minutes and need you to sit and finish your math. When the timer is done you can take a 10 minute break”, then set the timer again for his break. This makes homework more manageable. As always, make sure your son is getting enough sleep each night, has minimal access to electronics and television during the school week, and has at least an hour each evening that is electronic free prior to bedtime.

Young Kids Who Don’t Want to Go to School

“My 5 year old daughter never wanted to go to pre-school and now that she is entering kindergarten, not only has she said she won’t go, but she is terrified about starting at a new school with all new kids and teachers. How can I help her adjust?”

Starting kindergarten may be one of the scariest moments of a young child’s development. Most parents aren’t too crazy about the idea either. It’s really a rite of passage for a child to leave the safe, comforting nest of pre-school to enter a large school with multiple grades and larger classrooms. The good news is that most children adjust perfectly well, even if it takes a few weeks (or months). Start by looking into whether your child’s school has a kindergarten orientation that she can attend to give her a preview of the physical building as well as a tour of the school itself. If nothing like this is planned, call your school, explain your child’s needs and ask for a private tour. Also, many schools arrange get-togethers for kindergartners prior to the school year beginning or throughout the first few months of school. Inquire if your school does this and if not, consider starting such a group. Your school should also have a list of kids in your child’s class and it could help to call a few parents and ask if they’d like to get together to help kids get acquainted before the year begins.

At home there are numerous things you can do. First, talk about kindergarten in glowing terms, as in, “It’s nice that in kindergarten you’re able to have such a cool playground at recess!” or whatever benefits the school has to offer. An incentive might help sweeten the deal. Examples of this can be offering a later bedtime “now that you’re a big girl,” or you can create a “I’m a Big Girl Now” chart that lists all her rules and responsibilities around school. Examples are: “Get dressed; eat breakfast; bring backpack to car; get into car each day; going into classroom every day.” Each time she completes a task on the chart allow her to put up a sticker and after earning so many she gets a reward.

Related: How to create a list of consequences that will work specifically for your child.

Lastly, try to  keep a consistent schedule at home once the school year is underway. This should include the same bedtime each evening, nutritious meals and snacks, limits on how much access she has to technology, and enough exercise through play or sports.

Starting a new school year can be both exciting and harrowing for kids and parents alike. Experiencing a few bumps along the way is a normal part of starting something new, so make sure to give yourself a break if you and your child struggle a little in the beginning of the year. With a little effort and preparation, you will find that you do have the tools to help your child have a great year!

About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

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