Rising to the challenge of change

December 13, 2011 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

From the first trip on the big yellow school bus to the moving-up ceremony at the end of fifth grade, the elementary years are filled with lots of change. And while some children meet these new experiences with ease and eagerness, others have difficulty plunging into unfamiliar waters.

During the elementary years, the transition from one year to the next can be particularly challenging, requiring children to adjust to new people and to take on more complex workloads and responsibilities. School stress can also be exacerbated by changes in children’s home lives (e.g., the birth of a sibling, divorce, death, etc.)

There are many things families can do to help their children cope with change and successfully take on the new experiences they will meet, now and in the future. Here are some suggestions:

Set the tone for school success.

When they are young, children use your reactions and emotions as primary indicators of how they should view and respond to new situations. For this reason, your enthusiasm about school can be contagious.

Help boost children’s independence by encouraging them to take on responsibility at home.

Success with tasks at home, like choosing their clothing for the day, getting themselves dressed, preparing lunch or caring for a pet, can help children take on new experiences outside the home with greater confidence.

Keep a calendar.

Buy an inexpensive paper or erasable calendar with large grids (available at office supply stores) and help your children schedule their days, including assignments, sports and other extracurricular activities, appointments, special events and holidays. Keeping a calendar posted in a prominent location at home helps children anticipate what activities are coming and what is expected of them. It is also a great way to teach organizational skills that become more and more important as they move through school.

Establish a predictable routine early in the school year.

Each day, check your children’s backpacks for important notices and communication from teachers, set aside a place to store the items children need to head off to school (backpacks, coats, school supplies, sneakers, instruments) and establish a consistent homework time each day. The more organized your home routine is, the more safe and secure kids will feel and the less stress they will carry out the door with them.

Continually assess your children’s overall schedule (academic, social, extracurricular) and make sure there is balance.

Too many activities in any area are likely to cause extra stress for children and for you. During the school year, consider limiting children to one or two extracurricular activities. Make sure children are getting adequate sleep each night, and begin the day with a nutritious breakfast. Make sure children have time for daily physical activity and exercise. Rather than having them complete their homework as soon as they get home, set aside an hour or two after school for them to play and blow off some steam. Limit the amount of time spent watching television and videos or playing computer games, which are passive, isolating activities. Encourage your children to use their free time to read, listen to music, pursue hobbies, spend time with friends or take part in activities that your family enjoys. Connect as a family with activities like meals, walks or games that give everyone time to talk about their day and the things that interest and concern them.

Make sure children catch the bus and/or arrive at school on time each day.

The bus ride to school plus the first 10-15 minutes of the day can be an important time for children to connect with their friends and set the tone for learning.

Teach your children anxiety-reducing strategies, such as deep breathing and stretching.

Many children who are tentative about confronting new situations benefit from role-playing with a trusted parent or family member. Don’t wait until a concern becomes a larger problem. What may start out as discomfort with a new situation can grow over time into a nagging fear or even neurosis.


Some signs that your child may be experiencing chronic stress related to making school transitions include:

  • An expressed desire not to go to school
  • Upset stomach, diarrhea or indigestion
  • Headache
  • Backache
  • Insomnia (inability to fall asleep)
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Feeling hostile, angry or irritable
  • Feeling anxious
  • Avoiding other people
  • Crying
  • Feeling frustrated with things that would otherwise only bother your child a little bit

If you think that your child is having particular difficulty making school transitions, enlist the help of your child’s teacher, principal or school social worker.


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