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End-Of-Summer Butterflies

An original version of this article was distributed by

New York Times/Hearst News Services, August 2003 

by Allan Shedlin

At the end of each school year, a little caterpillar crawls into every student’s belly, figuratively speaking. The caterpillar spins a cocoon and rests there until late summer when it metamorphoses into a butterfly.  Almost at once, the butterfly’s antennae pick up signals that school will soon begin. The butterfly’s wings start fluttering, building to a crescendo the day before school starts. When we think of our own youth, many of us may remember those “butterflies” in the pit of our own stomachs as the opening day of school approached.

As parents, we want to help our children deal with their “first day of school jitters” with a minimum of angst. To do that, it’s useful for us to remember the collywobbles we may have felt as kids. We can use the insights gained from our own experiences to talk with our kids about why it is perfectly normal to feel nervous and vulnerable at the beginning of a new school year. In fact, situations such as these can be useful “parenting moments” because kids are uniquely receptive and open to growth.

When we acknowledge our children's end-of-summer butterflies, we let them know that their feelings are legitimate. We show them that we understand – our support goes a long way in helping them feel that they can talk with us during times of stress.

Pre-opening school nervousness is directly influenced by a child's age, stage of development, school history, and recent summer experiences. To help diminish the jitters, it is useful to consider some of the contributing factors:

  • Teachers:  Concern about whether teachers will like them is probably the single greatest worry for kids. Students often feel that teachers arbitrarily decide on the first day who will be the class "pet" or the “goat.” Remind your children that how the teacher responds to them is usually influenced by how they present themselves. Use this opportunity to discuss appropriate classroom behavior such as kindness, cooperation, completing assignments on time, and respectfulness.

  • Popularity and Friends:  Kids worry a lot about whether they will be popular and have friends. This is a good opportunity for you to explore the qualities they value in a friend, and how one can tell who a real friend is. Also, help your child to consider the importance of having a few close friends rather than a large number of more superficial acquaintances.

  • School Work:  Certain subject areas may raise particular concerns for your child. Students might worry, for example, about math, reading, science, physical education, or other subjects in which they have received poor grades or had difficulties with a particular teacher. Listen to your kids as they talk about their concerns. Together you may be able to sort out some of the reasons for their fears and develop some strategies for dealing with those fears.

  • Clothes and Supplies:  Having the latest clothes and “correct” school supplies can be very important to children. As newspapers, television, and social media become increasingly laden with back-to-school advertisements, they create pressures to buy the "right" clothes and “correct” supplies. Before school opens is a good time to ask your kids what clothes and supplies are most important to them, so together you can figure out what is reasonable and practical to purchase.

  • Safety:  Due to increased attention to school violence and bullying, as well as recent local and national events, we are all more on edge. Talk to your child about the difference between the fear that is generated by media attention to such events versus their likelihood of happening – statistics indicate that there has been a steady decrease in school violence, and that schools are generally very safe places.

Some additional ways to help your kids get off to a good start for a new school year:

  • Remind them that end-of-summer butterflies are normal for everybody—even teachers! 

  • Spend time with your child reviewing what contributed to last year's personal successes and failures. Use this review to develop strategies for the new year. Point out that a new school year is a great opportunity for a fresh start.

  • Ask your child to suggest specific ways in which you can be supportive and helpful.

  • Don’t make negative comments about school or teachers when your child is in earshot. It’s difficult for kids to give teachers and school a fair shake if they hear you say negative things even before school begins.

  • As end-of-summer “butterflies” become active in our kids’ stomachs, we might remind ourselves about how miraculous it is for a caterpillar to metamorphose into a butterfly – one that is eager to stretch its wings and explore new worlds.

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