By Derek Brown, Ph.D., LPC

Executive Director, Arkansas Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries

A Tough Start to A Very Different School Year

By Derek Brown, Ph.D., LPC

Executive Director, Arkansas Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries

Every first day of school comes with an array of emotions, but the range of fear and excitement has been much more extensive this year. From the masks and social distancing to the actual COVID concerns, the anxiety level for child and caregiver alike has been heightened. Though some parents and teachers have introduced very creative solutions to make good education possible, many children have still struggled with the new school structure. The difficult adjustment has possibly even led you to question the education decisions your family has made for this school year. Regardless of the method your family has chosen for school, a transition plan can help with some of the more difficult moments you may be having with your child. 

The first step in developing a transition plan is identifying a pattern for the undesired behavior. When is this target behavior happening? While brushing teeth, during drop-off or pickup from school, during math homework, before bedtime? Even if it seems like it’s occurring all day, try to identify the circumstances that are most consistent with the behavior. If you can identify these circumstances, you can hopefully gain some insight into the emotional response your child may be having. 

The second step of the transition plan is to prioritize felt safety. Sometimes the adult perspective is much different than the way the child sees the situation. In these circumstances, safety isn’t real until it is felt by the child. Safety is also much more than simply a physical concern. The lack of felt safety can create a heightened threatened response in the brain. This phenomenon is equally true for emotional, social, and environmental safety. Apparent misbehavior or acting out may not be about defiance or disrespect. Rather, it may be because the child needs help processing his or her emotion or environment. Over time, predictability and routine can create felt safety but caregiver connection and affirmation can bring immediate relief to the brain. 

Third, when planning for the challenging circumstance, consider how you can give voice to the child. This is an important part of the transition plan because it leads to empowerment and increases feelings of self-control. While children may not be able to choose whether or not to go to school, they can be involved in many other choices. When children learn they can ask for a compromise, their resistance is softened. Also, finding ways to involve the child in planning will make the transition go much smoother. 

This season has been difficult for adults with fully developed brains. How much more challenging must it be for the developing brains of our children? God has designed children to be able to absorb the regulation of caregivers. When you practice staying calm together, the effect is multiplied! Think ahead to the transition and decide on what will help reduce stress. Some ideas include deep breathing, a special prayer or Bible verse, brief exercise, or calming music. Food and hydration are also important for maintaining emotional regulation. Planning the stress-reducing responses ahead of time is necessary because the distressed brain does not have the same capacity for creativity. 

When you execute this transition plan, your best resource is caregiver connection. This emotional bond also is strengthened through promoting felt safety, giving voice, and practicing regulation. This means the more you practice the transition plan, the easier it gets. After using the plan, follow up with your child once everyone is calm and in a better learning state. This is a great time to reaffirm your support and rehearse the next transition. Though we would love to, we can’t change the circumstances of this world for our children. What we can do is walk with them through the difficult moments and point them to God’s presence and providence.

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