Back-to-school season is rough—for the kids, and for the parents. What’s even harder is helping your kid head off to a new school they haven’t been to before, whether they are growing up and changing buildings, switching districts, or, toughest of all, moving to a new city. What I thought would be a minor adjustment as my own son headed to an upper elementary building from a K-2 building, has been quite a bigger deal than I realized.
It all started when I took him back to school mid-morning after a medical appointment. He really didn’t want to get out of the car. Turns out, he had no idea how to get from the office to the playground where his class was. He spoke up about how nervous he was, listing some catastrophic thoughts just like a new mama watching over their sleeping baby, worrying about all the things we worry about.
“What if I get lost? What if I can’t find the bathroom on the way? What if the teacher thinks I’m in the wrong spot? What if I miss recess because I can’t even find it?” I realized, quickly, that new school anxiety runs much deeper for our little guys than I knew during backpack shopping a few weeks before. Luckily, of course, a super nice office assistant walked him to where he needed to go and I caught a glimpse of him in the rearview mirror playing gaga ball (what even IS that?) happily with his friend.
Crisis averted…for now.
Next came the inevitable bus anxiety. “Where will I sit? What if the bigger kids are mean? What if the bus driver is mean? What if I get off at the wrong stop?” We all remember how much of a rough place the bus can be. The only supervision seems to the camera that nobody really knows if it’s imaginary or real, and kids with a decade of age differences, in some cases, have to interact for better or worse.
So we talked about “sections” of the bus, and how the back of the bus where the 6th graders sit is soooo far away from the section he would be in. We identified everyone we already knew on the bus, and even talked through how to react if someone acts like a bully. “But why don’t buses have seatbelts?” he asked, going down a rabbit hole of new school worry. Honestly kid, who knows?
Turns out, the school layout kind of IS confusing. And the bus driver, though she’s working hard at a thankless job, did seem kind of mean. As my son revealed some of his newfound anxieties coming true, we had a new opportunity I didn’t see coming—to walk together through new, hard things.
But in the hustle and bustle of the first back-to-school week, even us moms who have seen it all sometimes forget that they will settle in, find their people, and develop a routine, naturally.
Car ride conversations the second week revealed this to be the case, much more quickly than I thought:
“My teacher is nicer. Recess is longer. My friends are cooler. The cafeteria is wayyy bigger,” he said, “and the food is better.” Along with moms of kids in new schools everywhere, I breathed an internal — super big — sigh of relief. He was settling in.
His commentary taught me something about myself, as kids tend to do. As he was worrying about which recess door to use and how planners work, and whether they’d carry the same chicken sandwiches he loved at his last school, he forgot to hope for the best, alongside the anxieties. I’d been holding my breath along with him that it might be a rough year, and instead had forgotten to open myself up to the possibility that he might not only learn something, but thrive in a fresh, new environment.
Maybe he had outgrown his sweet little primary school after all, and the only thing holding him back from succeeding in his new spot was all of our angst about it. New friends, teachers, aides, and processes allow for self-reinvention in a way that is refreshing to kids. He could rediscover himself, whoever that might be, in a way he couldn’t in his old space.
So, as he headed onto his new bus, I found myself practicing gratitude over worry, and trusting the process, that he was becoming who he was meant to be, in a new space built to support kids of his exact age. “You’re going to have a great year,” I whispered to him as he hopped onto the bus again, confident in the third week that he was, after all, exactly where he was meant to be.