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  • Writer's pictureAllan Shedlin

How Can Parents Prepare Kids for Ever-Larger End-of-Summer Butterflies?

By Allan Shedlin

Grampsy and Founder, DCG and Daddying Film Festival & Forum (D3F)

PHOTO: Balazs Kovacs on AdobeStock

Beginning at age three, I have spent every year of my long life connected to schools as student, teacher, administrator, policy advisor, parent, grandparent, and father and grandfather of a teacher. So, it’s no wonder that when August rolls around, it feels like the beginning of a new year.


Ever since first writing a version of this piece in 2010, I have felt that the ante/anti has been raised on children growing up and also on teaching. It is as if the butterflies referred to below have become larger and more plentiful with more rapidly fluttering wings. The world seems like a more dangerous and precarious place. Concomitantly, the mental health of children and youth is on the decline and, thus, the teachers and parents entrusted to their care are under increasing pressures. And all this is amplified by a critical shortage of teachers caused at least in part by pressures to make up for “learning loss,” the banning of books and the challenges to teaching the full measure of American history.


Nevertheless, schools still tend to begin around this time of year and the normal anxieties associated with new beginnings mixes with a sense of excitement and promise.

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 their feelings are legitimate. We show them we understand – our support goes a long way in helping them feel 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 schools are generally very safe places.

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.

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

  • Spend time with your child reviewing what contributed to last year's personal successes and disappointments. 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 those 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.


Daddy and Mommy on.


 

Allan Shedlin has devoted his life's work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019, he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He has conducted daddying workshops in such diverse settings as Native American pueblos, veterans groups, nursery schools, penitentiaries, Head Start centers, corporate boardrooms, and various elementary schools, signifying the widespread interest in men in becoming the best possible dad. In 2022, Allan founded and co-directed the Daddying Film Festival & Forum to enable students, dads, and other indie filmmakers to use film as a vehicle to communicate the importance of fathers or father figures in each others' lives. Allan earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D and GRAND D-A-D the most important “degrees” of all.


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