Covering parenting and child development issues
“Time always seems long to the child who is waiting - for Christmas, for next summer, for becoming a grown-up; long also when he surrenders his whole soul to each moment of a happy day.” (Dag Hammarskjold)
The end of the school year can be tough on parents, teachers and kids. Change, in the form of summer vacation, hovers tantalizingly out of reach, but that same sense of change also infuses these final days of class with the natural anxiety that arises when everything seems simultaneously different and the same. The daily routine hasn’t changed just yet, but so many “lasts” are occurring that these days don’t feel like those mundane days in March either. Back then, we groaned when winter weather pushed the finish line farther and farther away, but now, as we can see the end of the school year just ahead, many of us aren’t sure we want to keep running toward it.
Even little kids are affected by the uncertainty of what lies ahead, and depending upon their age, they may be unable to express to what they’re feeling. Behavior may become more challenging and bedtimes (already made more difficult by prolonged daylight) may become a battleground as overtired kids have trouble settling down and going to sleep. The emotions of imminent endings and new beginnings are inescapable in everything from graduation ceremonies to end-of-year parties to last trips to the school library.
Our kids are saying good-bye. To another year of school. To a teacher. To this particular constellation of classmates in this particular classroom in this particular building. For some, this will be a relief. For others, it can be devastating.
So how can we help them?
Acknowledge feelings. Do your best to take your child’s feelings seriously, even if you don’t understand them. As a school counselor, I loved standing outside on the last day of school to give final hugs and summer farewells to my students. Most were exuberant, but the fifth graders in particular (and not just the girls) often exited the building in tears. They were leaving a part of childhood behind as they headed to middle school, and they felt it intensely. Though those feelings might have seemed melodramatic to adults, they were very real to those eleven-year-olds. They needed the adults around them to both acknowledge their sadness and keep them optimistic about what lay ahead.
Make plans. Some kids can’t wait for school to be over and are happy to have little tastes of summer (time at the pool after school or a trip for ice cream after dinner) as the school year draws to a close. Others want to hang on -- to classmates, to a teacher, to a building they are leaving -- and will benefit from acknowledging the ways they can make this happen, such as collecting classmates’ phone numbers or teachers’ email addresses at school (yes, most teachers check email periodically over the summer). They may never need to use these tools, but knowing they have them can ease the transition.
Don’t ditch the routine just yet -- but be flexible. Elementary school kids in particular need consistency in the face of change, so shifting to summer too soon can be stressful for them, but the lengthening daylight hours and more pleasant temperatures are impossible to ignore. Knowing how much sleep your child needs and how much time they need to wind down will guide you in deciding how much flexibility is reasonable.
Even bigger kids may need our help striking a balance. High school kids stressed by finals and end-of-the-year emotions may need permission to take a break to enjoy the nice weather or conversation with family and friends that doesn’t revolve around grades or schoolwork. Conversely, others may need assistance with their studies, including basic study skills (how to study for a final, how to break a big project into smaller chunks), time management strategies (one hour of studying shouldn’t be followed by a one hour break) or discussion of the material they are studying.
Take care of yourself. Parents have feelings, too. It can be hard to watch our kids grow up, or conversely, we can be over the moon about seeing a difficult school year come to an end. It’s important to deal with our own feelings about transitions apart from our kids. Many kids who are ready to move on to middle school (or high school) have parents who dread this change; oversharing can put a damper on your child’s enthusiasm for the next logical step. While your feelings are valid, they’re adult feelings. Meet a friend for coffee, talk to your spouse, go for a run -- whatever it is that helps you take the edge off those feelings so your child doesn’t misinterpret your natural parental concerns as a reason to fear the next step.
Celebrate! This can be as low key as crossing a day off the calendar or as big as a quick outing every night after dinner, depending on the feelings of the people living in your house. You may have a private bedtime calendar ritual with the child who can’t wait for the school year to end and a private encouraging discussion with the one who’s dreading it. A walk or a trip to the park can be low key way to relieve both the palpable stress of too much excitement and the overwhelming stress of a too-soon ending.
Change is complex: it’s both exciting and difficult, but it’s necessary for growth. Without change, we stagnate, and though there’s comfort in sameness, too much sameness can lead to boredom.
Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself as yet another school year comes to a close and my daughter, long past her baby and elementary years, checks off another school year and achieves another milestone.