Back to school tips for emotional wellbeing

Dr Michelle O'Driscoll shares some ways in which you can boost your ability to support your little one's emotional wellbeing
Back to school tips for emotional wellbeing

Introduce your children to some grounding and self-awareness exercises they can practice before school or during, at any time that they feel overwhelmed. Picture: Stock

BACK to school has been all-consuming for many households these past few weeks; the scramble to get books, bags and lunchboxes ready, to make sure that the pants still fit, to find the missing school tie.

In the midst of the rush to tick all the boxes on the to-do list, we can easily lose sight of how our children are feeling about it all. Lots of children are ecstatic to be heading off, but for lots more it can be a time of uncertainty and of feeling a little bit out of their depth.

Whether it’s smallies who are starting a new chapter in pre-school or primary school, tweens beginning their secondary school journey, or others navigating a switch of classroom or teacher, September brings change.

With all that has happened over the past 18 months, an adjustment that involves increased engagement and interaction on a daily basis is bound to be overwhelming.

Children who are struggling with this may not actively offer up how they’re feeling about the transition, tending instead to bottle it up and project it in their behaviours at home.

Rather than getting lost in the organisational detail and technicalities of the back to school process, here are some potential ways to boost your abilities to support your little one’s emotional wellbeing.

Preparation is key

Organisation may not come naturally to many of us, but preparation really is key for a smoother, less overwhelming back to school experience. If you’ve done the back to school shopping well in advance, you’re probably already reaping those benefits.

Prior to starting at a new school, preparation through conversation and explaining how it will look and what will be involved can be really reassuring for uncertain little minds.

That preparation can continue into the coming weeks by laying out clothes the night before, having lunches ready to go in the fridge, and freeing up that special time in the morning for conversation, encouragement and fun. This will set your little one up for the day on a calmer, positive note versus a frantic race out the door.

Name to tame

Taking time to ask questions of your children about how they are feeling about the back to school adjustment will strengthen the communication links between you. For little ones who may not be able to find the words to describe “nervous”, “anxious”, “excited” “afraid”, offer them plenty to choose from. You want them to name those big feelings, not so that you can tell them that “there’s no need to feel that way,” or to feel something else instead, but to validate and acknowledge them as normal, understandable emotions that you can relate to. Naming them puts them into perspective, and takes the enormity out of them.

Take this approach a step further by getting them to describe where exactly they feel it; is the excitement in their tummy like butterflies? 

Is their anxiety like a tightness around their temples? Is their nervousness like a weight on their chest? Seeing the feelings in this way takes kids out of their heads and into their bodies, cutting the cycle of thoughts that feed the stress further.

5,4,3,2,1 and Hot Chocolate

Introduce your children to some grounding and self-awareness exercises they can practice before school or during, at any time that they feel overwhelmed.

Invite them to pause and name for themselves in the following order: five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they can feel, two things they can smell and one thing they can taste. This simple process brings them back to the present moment and stalls the fight/flight response that may have been brewing.

Another lovely exercise for smaller children is to imagine there’s a cup of hot chocolate in front of them. Smell the hot chocolate by breathing in slowly and deeply through the nose, then cool the hot chocolate down by blowing slowly and gently out through the mouth. Engaging in this practice for five or six breaths is enough to anchor your little one back to the present moment, and to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system.

Self regulate to co regulate

Our job as parents, and the one that we sometimes might wish we were better at, is being able to help our child to regulate their emotions — to manage the surges that naturally come during stressful times such as this. We do this by providing regulation to them ourselves, through our actions, words and tone of voice.

Which is why the frantic scramble out the door doesn’t serve us well in terms of regulating our little ones. This concept is called “co-regulation”, and as our children mature, will lead to them learning and developing their own regulation skills over time.

However, in order to be able to offer that co-regulation, we need to first be able to self regulate and self-soothe. How good are we at navigating our own big feelings, of maintaining composure and perspective?

Self-regulation strategies look different for everybody, and it’s worth spending some time reflecting on what works for you — what gets you out of your head, resets the adrenaline, gives you perspective. Only then, when your child’s emotional cup overflows, will you have the capacity to catch the excess — one of the most important and rewarding jobs there is.


Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company.

Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.


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