For many students and their parents, the start of the school year also marks the arrival of new schedules, routines, and academic expectations. Whether the fall semester sees your child buying their own lunch for the first time or dealing with the pressures of high school exams, the way that they cope with these transition periods can have a huge impact on their psychological, social, and academic well-being.
But while parents should always keep an eye out for potential adjustment issues, there are stages in the school journey that can present more acute problems. Children advancing to the next stage of their education, such as making the move up from kindergarten, elementary, middle, or high school, are particularly prone to feeling unsettled both at school and at home. Some may even be changing curricula or between international and local schools, both of which can seriously disrupt their personal development.
So What’s New?
Starting at a new school can be difficult. New classmates, teachers, and environments may be problematic for children of all ages, especially if they are naturally more introverted than others. Besides the more obvious hurdles, there are a number of other issues to contend with. Going from being the oldest in a school to the youngest or from being at the top of the class to a more competitive environment can all cause anxiety and affect a child’s emotional welfare.
In many cases, however, differences in routines and expectations lie at the heart of adjustment problems. This is especially the case for younger children, for whom the greatest changes may take the form of new activities and responsibilities. Although it is all a natural part of growing up, the prospect of school assemblies, longer days, stricter rules, or the introduction of activities such as swimming or IT can be daunting.
It may take some time to adapt to new schedules. This was something that Canadian and beijingkids Board Member Victor Wong found when his youngest son Ethan, now 9 years old, started his first year of elementary school. “He had to be more organized and there were lots of new things to do each day, like taking the bus,” Wong says. “Individually, the new duties weren’t too difficult. But when you combine them, it adds up to a lot of adjustment.”
Beyond the restructuring of the daily routine, the expectations placed on children invariably grow as they progress up the school ladder. Wong discovered that moving from the play-orientated focus of kindergarten to a more formal learning environment required some preparation.
“At kindergarten, all Ethan had to do was run around,” he says. “But then he found he had to start taking responsibility for himself. He is a super energetic kid and I literally had to practice sitting down with him!”
For older children, growing expectations can be even more severe. While they too will have to deal with new classmates, teachers, and surroundings, they will also face the increasing academic rigor that unfolds at each stage of education. Preparation for exams and the introduction of a broader range of subjects both have the potential to act as stress triggers.
These worries were amplified for Wong when his eldest son, also called Victor, decided that he wanted to move from an international elementary to a Chinese middle school. The differences in curriculum, teaching style, and – most problematically – language were profound.
“When he started Chinese school, he understood almost nothing,” recalls Wong. “It was the pace, the teaching – everything. We underestimated just how different the system was going to be and the local schools have their own curriculum and styles. But it does work. My son’s doing really well and not only that, he’s happy and adjusted.”
Although both of Victor’s sons had the determination and flexibility to adapt, many children will struggle regardless of their age or the nature of the changes they undergo. It is inevitable that some will find the transition more difficult, according to Dr. Rob Blinn, a clinical psychologist at Beijing United Family Hospital.
“Whether we’re preschoolers or high schoolers, when human beings are faced with new situations, we have to learn to adapt and some of us do better than others,” he explains. Every child will react differently during transition periods but there are some signals to be aware of. Problems with behavior, mood, and motivation can all emerge from the stress and uncertainty of change.
“The main warning signs are things like isolation, acting out, aggression towards other kids, or more anxious behavior,” says Dr. Blinn. “You may also see developmental regression. So with a younger child, you could find that although they were pretty good with [toilet training], they start to wet their pants once or twice a week.”
Parents with older children may experience more subtle shifts in attitude, such as eye rolling, grumpiness, and irritability. But with age comes the ability to hide problems, so simply looking for these symptoms is not enough. Moreover, drops in achievement or difficulty making friends may not manifest themselves in noticeable ways at home. So although the obvious warning signs can help, their absence does not necessarily mean that everything is going smoothly.
Creating and maintaining a good relationship with teachers is clearly an effective way to spot issues you might not otherwise have been aware of. But actively listening to your child is the key to identifying and solving transitional difficulties, according to Ishbel Bruce, who runs Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) courses in Beijing.
She suggests that while most parents like to think they are there for their kids, it takes a considered approach to creating an environment in which children feel comfortable talking about matters that are really troubling them.
“What I find to not be helpful is asking ‘So how was school today?’ straight after class because you won’t get much of a response,” she warns. “You should try and avoid that type of interrogative question.”
Instead, Bruce recommends allocating some time every day, even if it is only five or ten minutes, to having one-to-one time with your child that is spent on their terms.
“It might be reading a book or maybe older children want to go to a movie, but you give them a devoted period of time,” she suggests. “You may not talk directly about the transition they’re going through but when you speak together about your experiences, there will be door openers.
“The talking process is cathartic, but it can also help you get to the root of a problem. For example, your child may complain that they don’t like their math teacher, but using active listening you may discover that it’s part of a deeper root cause. Maybe they don’t like who they sit next to in class or perhaps they are just not doing particularly well in math.”
Once you identify a specific adjustment problem, there is, unfortunately, no cure-all solution. Each must be treated in a case-specific way and worked through between yourself, your child and, if appropriate, the school. But simply assuring them that everything will be fine is often the worst thing you can do.
“One of the mistakes parents make is that they try and ease the transition too much rather than being honest with their kids,” says Wong. “When my son moved to a local Chinese school, I had to tell him ‘This is going to be really hard!’”
Of course, sometimes there is not a single specific issue troubling your child, but a more general sense of uncertainty about change. This can be much more intense for families that are new to the country. As well as dealing with the prospect of a new school and classmates, the cultural differences of a foreign city and international education can be disconcerting for some. In these cases, however, it is often the parents’ own difficulty adjusting that is causing friction, according to Dr. Blinn.
“Sometimes parents are so busy adapting themselves that they do not devote as much time to being there for the kids,” he says. “But it’s important for new parents to be present and available in order to help their children through the period of transition. When parents can deal with their own stress and adjustment issues, it puts them in a much better place to be present and help the children settle in. On airlines, they normally tell you to put on your own oxygen mask and make sure the parents are stable first, but in this case, it’s important to go through the transition together.”
This is advice that resonates with Renee Baker, who relocated to Beijing from the US less than six weeks ago with her husband and two daughters, 8-year-old Sophie and 3-year-old Hollis. She is putting off looking for work for at least a year to make sure that the family is settled as the girls start school.
“My priority has to be the children and making sure they’re comfortable,” she says. “If there’s an issue, then it’s important that I hear from them right away so I know whether I need to speak with the teacher or school about it.”
Given how much upheaval Baker faced during the recent relocation, continuity has been particularly important for her family as they prepare for the new semester.
“The big thing we tried to establish here is consistency,” she says. “That can mean keeping expectations the same as back in the US or just trying to find some things that are similar, even if it’s just familiar snack foods or their favorite sandwich. One thing we did back home was have weekly family meetings, so we have now reinstated those as a way to check in, discuss any issues, and talk about what’s going on that week.”
The experts agree that maintaining children’s stability and routine outside school can be the best way to smooth the transition in the classroom.
“Children will need as much of their family life to remain unchanged while they are experiencing a change at school,” says PET trainer Bruce. “Keep up the family routines, the familiar weekend activities, or the favorite bedtime stories and try to keep disruptions to a minimum.”
But there will also be many things that will inevitably be different, so helping children come to terms with these elements of school life is as important as maintaining stability at home. Most schools offer open days or orientation sessions and talking your kids through their daily schedule in advance can help.
Once the school year is underway there is still plenty more you can do outside school hours to help your child adapt. For Wong, focusing on his son’s social life was the key to the successful transition to a local school. Helping Victor socialize with other kids and arranging weekend activities made it easier to fit in during the week.
“Of course there were new challenges with the curriculum and teaching styles,” he explains. “But if you start to make friends, then everything else becomes easier because you have a support network in school.”
So both parents and experts agree that a successful transition is based on the emotional support of parents and peers. Helping your child to adjust is a case of providing continuity where you can and help adapting where you can’t. But it all begins with listening to and understanding your child’s needs. Without this first step, minor adjustment issues may become larger problems as the year unfolds.
Beijing United Family Hospital
Dr. Rob Blinn provides consultations in English at BJU’s Psychological Health Center, now based at the New Hope Oncology Center. 9-11 Jiangtai Xi Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100015 (5927 7008) ufh.com.cn 朝阳区将台西路9-11号 邮编 100015
Bruce offers Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) courses and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 139 1103 4134.
Creating an Effective Homework Routine
Choose a time and stick to it. Some kids may work better straight after school and others may need a snack or some playtime first. But once you’ve set a time, try not to deviate from it.
Create a single workspace. Find somewhere where your child is comfortable working and establish it as the only place for homework. It should be quiet, free from distractions, and well-stocked with paper and stationery.
Buy a shared calendar. It can be used to signal any disruption to the schedule as well as help your child track their deadlines.
Understand the school’s expectations. Know how much and when homework needs to be produced so you can help your child make a work plan for the week. Spreading the work evenly across the week will help maintain a regular routine.
Be available. You don’t need to peer over your child’s shoulder but let them know that you’re there to help if they need you. If you have any paperwork to get on with, do it nearby to establish a shared quiet time.
Establishing a Healthy Bedtime Routine
As with homework, choose a time and stick to it. A child’s internal body clock responds to routine, so by enforcing a strict bedtime they will begin to feel naturally tired at the allocated time. Try not to stray too far from it on weekends and holidays.
Give them plenty of warning. As bedtime nears, be vocal about how long there is left. Regular reminders such as “10 minutes until bed” or “five minutes until you brush your teeth” will help them mentally prepare for sleep.
Prepare with some quiet time. Turn off any electronic devices an hour before bed and encourage quiet activities like reading or packing their school bag for the next day. Children may also benefit from a bath, which has been shown to relax the body for sleep.
Explain why sleep matters. Poor sleeping patterns can have short- and long-term effects on a child’s memory and development, so it is important that they understand the rationale behind the rules. This is especially the case for teenagers who may not necessarily go to sleep straight after going to bed.
Eat and drink wisely. Sugary foods and caffeinated drinks will disrupt sleep patterns, so make sure you hand out any treats well before bedtime.
This article originally appeared on p52-55 of the beijingkids September 2013 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com.
Photos by Lova.