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  • Paul Galbraith

Beating the Back-to-School Battle

Some children seem to relish the idea of going to big school or returning to school for the new year, while others seem to face this time with a sense of apprehension and reluctance. Back to school can be a difficult time for children, but also for parents who feel pretty helpless when their child isn’t making this adjustment smoothly.

Parents often ask me for tips or guidelines in these situations, and you will be glad to know that my advice is generally pretty simple. Here it is:

1. Talk to your child every day, hear what they have to say and stay connected

Parents often seem to under-estimate the value in this, but the impact can often be immense. Children benefit greatly from having an adult pay them attention, listen to them without any other distractions or judgement, and to have that adult give them the space to look for solutions.

It is also important that you don’t fall into the trap of wanting to jump to the rescue immediately, or to be overly prescriptive with advice when your child tells you about problems. This can sometime leave children feeling overwhelmed when they can make your advice happen, or reluctant to tell you about their problems for fear of over-reaction. Rather work with your child to decide on a plan that you are both comfortable with. Don’t underestimate your kids, you may be surprised at the creative ways they solve problems!

2. Help your child identify her/his strengths

Parents tend to spend a lot of time and effort looking for problems so that they can try to fix them. This is understandable, but when we notice and give attention to problems and deficits, we begin to see our children in a problem-focussed way, and this results in more anxiety, concern and worry. This also means that we sometimes overlook the things that are going right and what our children's strengths are.

By making an effort to get to know your child in terms of their strengths, and helping them to expand on and utilise these strengths, we can foster confidence, cooperation, and environment that results in resilience. To start finding your child’s unique strengths, ask yourself these kinds of questions:

What is going right in my child’s life?

What makes him tick?

What is she doing when she is at her best?

What is he doing when he is at his happiest?

When was I positively surprised by something my daughter did?

What would my son’s best friend say about him?

Once you have answered these, bring these strengths up in a conversation, and ask your child what other strengths they feel they have that you may have overlooked. Then make an effort to look out for the strengths in action, and acknowledge and appreciate these when you see them. Provide opportunities for your kids to practice these strengths and watch them grow!

3. Help your child build a good relationship with their teacher

Teachers can be some of the most influential adults that your child encounters, and you have some control over whether this influence becomes positive or negative. I have encountered parents in my practice who seem to be in constant conflict with their child’s teacher. This creates a strained relationship between the child and the teacher, but can also communicate to children that relationships that don’t come easily don’t need to be worked at. Children can learn an immense amount of good from learning to interact with a teacher who they don’t have a natural fit with, and will help them to become more interpersonally confident in the future.

4. Help your child build good relationships with their peers

Friendships and peer relationships are an important part of childhood development, and are key in the development of self-esteem and how a child makes sense of their world. Again, parents play an important role in facilitating this process. By supporting and encouraging your child to take part in social activities, play dates and extra-curricular activities, you can help your child open the door to relationships with other children. Again, it is important to know and understand your unique child and to try to match their interests, strengths and preferences to the kinds of experiences that suit them, while also trying to expose them to a range of different experiences.

5.   Focus on what went well

While it's important to let your child talk about their challenges and difficult moments, don't always guide the conversation towards what went wrong. Instead, help them start exploring the good things that they might otherwise overlook, like a moment when the teacher smiled at their joke, the pride they show in a piece of work they completed at school, or the story they tell about the child in their class who they think is funny.

Make it your mission to look for and uncover even the slightest sign that your child is getting it right to adjust to their new school, teacher or grade. This is usually the best place to start in moving things in the right direction. Once you start identifying these things, make it your mission to talk in detail about these things, rather than focusing on what went wrong and trying to come to the rescue.

6.  Act based on belief

Lastly, it can be really awful for a parent seeing their child unhappy at school, and this can create a lot of worry and anxiety. When parents react based on difficult emotions, they often get stuck in trying to resolve the problem in a way that instead reinforces the problem. Try to operate and make decisions based on the belief that with your support and guidance, your child has the skills and resources to overcome this setback. This communicates to your child that you believe in them which can instil confidence and self-belief in children, and also takes the pressure off you for having to fix every problem!

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