Help Your Kids Navigate the School Social Scene

The beginning of another school year means a new teacher, new curriculum, and new academic expectations. All of this “new” can bring on a serious case of the jitters for both parents and kids, but what kids worry about the most is the social scene — who will I sit with at lunch and play with on the playground? What if I don’t know anyone in my class this year?

How much stress and anxiety your child feels depends a lot on your child’s temperament, as well as your individual and family circumstances. Some kids are naturally shyer than others and may need more time to warm up and feel comfortable. If your family recently moved or your children are just starting school, they’ll likely feel more anxious. In any case, you can help quell the nerves of a new school year with a confident, yet empathetic response. Try these few ideas to get started.

Offer reassurance
Help your children understand that feeling nervous about starting school is normal. Remind them that most — if not all — of the children in their classes have similar feelings. Encourage them to observe the other kids at school. Is there someone sitting alone at lunch or on the playground? Strike up a conversation with another nervous child and they’ve made an instant friend.

“Practice” friendship
Practice having a conversation with your child. Sometimes kids (and even adults) simply don’t know what to say or how to get started. Teach your child to ask a question or give a compliment to get the ball rolling. It could be something as simple as, “I like your backpack,” or “Do you want to play soccer with us at recess?”

Point out the positive
It’s easy to focus on the negative, but there’s plenty of reason, scholars say, to spend more time praising the positive. In an article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, clinical psychologist and professor of pediatrics Edward Christophersen advises parents to point out positive behavior and praise children when they get it right. Sometimes kids need a little help with the social conventions of asking for a turn, sharing, and playing cooperatively. A few prompts from you can make all the difference.

Make time for unstructured play
Whether over the summer, after school, or on weekends, unstructured play time is essential for helping kids develop social skills, and having a few friendly faces in class makes going to school less daunting. If you live on a street with a lot of kids, the problem is solved. If not, reach out to other parents and organize some play dates. It will make a huge difference.

Keep an eye out for bullying
Keep the lines of communication open and talk with your child about bullying. Alert your child’s teacher if you suspect that your child is being bullied., a website managed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, notes the following warning signs: changes in eating or sleeping habits, frequent headaches or illness, damaged clothing or personal items, and behavioral changes.

Foster independence
As you help your children form friendships, remember that every child is different. Some kids make friends quickly, while others need more time. Give your children the skills they need, and then step back, allowing them the independence to take risks, try things out, and make a few mistakes. When your children continuously feel your trust and confidence, they’ll learn to believe in themselves as well, and friendships can blossom.

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