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Making transitions

Positive social and emotional connections - at home and at school - can help kids thrive

making transitions
It can be overwhelming for children when they are faced with a whole variety of new people and situations, so the secure relationship they have with their parent(s) provides a solid anchor during times of change.
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Ways to support your child's success at school

BY LAURIE MCPHERSON
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2015

It's sometimes easy to forget that a kid's life can be a bit stressful.

That can be especially true for children during the first few years of school.

Children entering kindergarten or Grade 1, for example, will sometimes experience stress and anxiety as a result of being away from their parents. Likewise, older kids (between the ages of seven and nine) who are changing schools or classrooms may also experience challenges adjusting to a new environment or making friends.

Fortunately, there are things that can be done to help kids make these and other transitions a little easier. That's why it is important for parents and teachers alike to take steps to create positive social and emotional environments - at home and at school - that will allow kids to thrive.

One way to do this is to create a sense of connectedness to both family and school.

It can be overwhelming for children when they are faced with a whole variety of new people and situations, so the secure relationship they have with their parent(s) provides a solid anchor during times of change. Parents can reinforce this connection to their child by giving them attention and listening to their concerns, comforting them when they are worried or afraid, being physically close with hugs of reassurance, and simply having fun together.

When parents stay positive and believe in a child's ability to cope, it boosts a child's confidence and reassures them that things will be okay. Children also benefit from hearing that adjustments take a bit of time.

Schools and classroom teachers can also do their part to build a sense of belonging. Schools strive to maintain a welcoming environment by inviting parents to the school for events and communicating with parents regularly through a variety of methods such as newsletters and the school website. At the beginning of the year, teachers will engage in classroom activities that help students get to know one another and also assist in creating a learning environment that is not only safe and comfortable, but one that fosters a sense of belonging and cohesiveness. This can be accomplished, for example, by creating classroom agreements, establishing classroom buddies and doing fun activities that allow children to share something about themselves with their classmates such as their culture, interests and family make-up. Building this sense of community in the classroom promotes empathy and resilience and can even work to reduce bullying and aggression.

Many students have expectations and fears about school that contribute to back-to-school stress. Will my classmates like me? What if I can't keep my grades up? Younger children may be worried that they won't have their parents to turn to for help or reassurance. These worries often arise out of a lack of information.

For example, a student moving from a small elementary to a large middle school may be concerned about all of the new responsibilities with getting to different classes, exams or even getting lost. One of the easiest ways to address this is through accurate information and organization. Parents can make sure they read all of the information sent home from school, check the school's website regularly and use a family calendar to keep everyone in the family informed. Students can be reassured that the school will provide an orientation with activities to help the student get to know their new school, classroom and routines.

When children know what to expect, they can prepare themselves for it rather than worrying about the unknown or imagining something much worse. The more involved children are in this process, the less likely they are to be anxious about things.

Summer schedules are often more flexible so it can be a bit of a challenge to resume school hours without some difficulty. It may take a few weeks to get into a routine, but it is important for both students and parents to strive for adequate and regular sleep along with good nutrition.

Many people underestimate the impact of poor sleep and nutrition on their ability to cope with their day. Think of it as filling your gas tank; you wouldn't expect your car to go very far on an empty gas tank.

The back-to-school adjustment can be a great learning opportunity for children and youth.

Amidst all of the changes and transitions, they can learn that they have the ability to adapt and cope. This acknowledgement enhances resilience and helps prepare them for bigger changes and transitions that are bound to happen in the future. Children and youth who adjust well to change have developed important skills such as problem-solving and coping skills. Parents can play an important role in supporting the development of these skills by listening and helping children to see their strengths. Other ways parents can support a child's efforts in adapting are to stay calm in the face of adversity, maintain a positive outlook and view mistakes as part of the learning process.

Back to school is also a good time to establish healthy stress management and coping strategies. Positive coping strategies could include physical activity or stretch breaks to release energy in positive ways. Other strategies, such as visualization and breathing techniques, help students cope with strong feelings such as anger or anxiety. You may discover that your child's teacher is also introducing some of these coping strategies in the classroom so that all students can benefit from them.

When students have positive social and emotional health, it affects their success in a number of important ways including: academic achievement, the ability to handle emotions, self-esteem, a sense of belonging, social skills and positive thinking, as well as the ability to contribute to the community.

Efforts to promote the social and emotional well-being of students are strengthened by the involvement of both caring parents and school staff. And it is these kinds of investments that will benefit a child throughout their entire life.

Laurie McPherson is with the mental health promotion program at the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: March / April 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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