When your child has a break from school, childcare or kindergarten and it’s time to go back they might start to show anxiety and reluctance to return. They may have only missed a day due to sickness or it could be after the school holidays are over but those dreaded words start to come out their mouth “I don’t want to go to school”.
What’s happening for them is that their self-talk is saying “I just want to stay home” or “I don’t want to leave mum/dad”. They feel safe and comfortable in their home environment and after a break they forget all the things they enjoy about school. Instead their brain starts the loop of thoughts about not wanting to go to school which in turn creates negative feelings in their body.
I know I have the same thoughts about going back to work after being away on holidays. I definitely forget all the things I enjoy about work and only think about the negatives!
The more they think about returning to school the more they have the anxious and/or worried thoughts. This then creates bigger feelings of not wanting to go to school and increased reluctance and distress.
Telling them “you’ll be ok once you get there” or “remember how much you love school” won’t do much to help them feel better. Instead you need to help their brain break the loop of negative thoughts and actively help them remember what they like about school.
You do this by having them recall LOTS of different positive memories about school. You might have to help them initially by telling them some positive memories about school. For example, “remember how you got that special award at school for being student of the week? That was a good week wasn’t it” or “remember that time when your friend “Alex” invited you to their pool party and you were so excited about it”. Try to be really specific about the memories rather than too broad such as “remember how much fun you have playing with your friends”. Recalling specific memories will help to create stronger emotional reactions in their body.
You might remind them of some of the fun things they’ve done with their friends at school, special events that have taken place, memories of nice things their teacher has said to them, or fun assignments they’ve participated in.
Just having them recall lots and lots of good memories will start their brain to signal those positive and happy feelings to their body. Suddenly when they think about school again they are excited feelings and not those anxious ones.
This week my three year old had to return to kindergarten after two weeks off. He started telling me he didn’t want to go back to school a few days before. On the day he had to go to kindergarten I said to him “let’s talk about all the things you love about kindergarten”. As he is still quite young I had to give him a few examples first before he got the hang of it. I said things like “I love how big the sandpit is at your school and how they have those really good scoops that pick up so much sand”; “remember on the last day of school how your teacher gave you an Easter egg you were so excited about that”; “My favourite thing about school is at the end of the day when you run up to me and give me the biggest hug! I just love that moment”.
By then end he was telling me all sorts of things he LOVED about kindergarten and we took it in turns sharing what we liked about it. We did this in the car the whole way to kinder. When we got to school he still said he “didn’t want to go” but his body language showed me he was actually excited to be back.
Having him recall all of his fond memories of kindergarten meant that he wasn’t going in there with lots of these negative thoughts and emotions. I am sure he still would have preferred that I stayed with him but he settled more easily than if I hadn’t addressed his negative thoughts of not wanting to go.
What I hope you take away from this is how we can use memories of positive experiences to change negative thought loops, which in turn can decrease your child’s anxiety and worries. You can also use this technique when they have to experience something for the first time by sharing your positive and fond memories. For example, if they were starting school for the first time you might share all the things you used to love about school. This positive narrative can help them replace some of the negative narratives they have created in their mind. It doesn’t mean they won’t still be sad on their first day or week but hopefully they won’t be as sad or worried about it!