Back to school!

Louise Shanagher
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As children return back to school after the Summer holidays parents often wonder how they can best support their child throughout the new school year. Parents are often very anxious to give their child the best opportunities possible, enrolling their child in numerous after-school activities and homework clubs. The overall focus can be very much about their child's academic performance and achievements.
I think it can be very helpful at this time of year to take a step back and look at what is really important for our children from a broader perspective. Ask yourself what is it I really want for my child? Often the answer comes down to us wanting happiness and well-being for our children more than anything else. A different question we can then ask is how can I support my child's happiness and well-being throughout this new school year?
A large study by Clarke, Fleche, Layard, Powdthavee & Ward, 2018 found that the biggest predictor of adult life satisfaction was emotional health as a child and the least important predictor of adult life satisfaction was intellectual performance as a child. Of course children's academic learning is very important but as a society we are often guilty of prioritising it over their emotional well-being. The interesting thing is that when children are happy and relaxed their focus and concentration will be better and they will learn and perform better academically also.
The first step in supporting your child's emotional well-being as they return to school and throughout the school year is to nurture your own. One of the best ways to do this is through Mindfulness and Self Compassion practices which has been shown to have many benefits for our mental and physical health.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and without judgement. We can practice mindfulness by bringing our attention to what we are doing in “the here and now”. When we drink our cup of tea, we can bring our full attention to the taste, temperature and the feeling of the cup in our hands. When we have our shower we can notice how the water feels on our skin. We can notice when our mind wanders away and bring back our focus to what we are experiencing in the present moment.
It is also very important to bring a sense of kindness and friendship to our attention. So many parents can be self critical, comparing themselves to other parents and feeling like they are just not good enough. Try developing a kind, non judgemental relationship with yourself. Ask yourself would I speak to a good friend the way I speak to myself and if the answer is no try relating to yourself with more kindness and compassion.
Although this may be difficult at first, with practice it becomes much easier. Listening to online mindfulness and self compassion meditations can be a huge help and if you feel like you need more support try joining a local mindfulness class.
When parents are actively looking after their own well-being they will be much better equipped to support their child throughout the busy school year. Children are also very sensitive to parents stress levels and emotions. If you are feeling strong and emotionally well children will respond to that. We often teach much more by our attitude and behaviours than in the words we say.
Returning to school after the Summer brings up all sorts of emotions for children. One of the most beneficial things that parents can do is to normalize their child's emotions.
I would encourage families to spend time openly discussing emotions together. Children can often feel it is bad or wrong to experience certain feelings.
Parents can talk to children about the emotions they felt when they were in school. Throughout the school year it is a nice idea to spend time at the end of each day where each family member talks about the emotions that they experienced that day. Always reassure your child that there are no bad or wrong emotions. Although some emotions can be uncomfortable we can learn how to manage that emotion and ask for help.
You can also encourage your child to express their emotions creatively by drawing, art and craft. I often give children “everything's okay diaries” and tell them that this is a place for them to write, draw or colour whatever thoughts and feelings they have, I assure the child that whatever they put in this diary is okay and just for them. This is something that a child can do for ten minutes every day after school.
Mindfulness is a skill that we can teach children from 3 years of age and is a great tool that children can use to cope with difficult thoughts, emotions and situations. I would encourage parents to teach children how to practice mindful breathing and set aside 1 minute each day for the family to practice mindful breathing together, a great time to practice is in the morning before heading off for school.
You can ask your child to put their hand on their belly and to feel their belly move when they breathe. Remind your child that now is a time to relax their mind and to notice what their breathing feels like. Assure your child that if their mind wanders to another thought, they can bring their attention back to feeling their breathing again. Start off with 5 breaths and increase to 10 breaths and then to 30 seconds and 60 seconds . As your child gets used to practicing you can increase the time.
You can encourage your child to practice a few mindful breaths anytime they feel like their mind is busy or when they would like to feel more calm. The great thing about mindful breathing is that they can practice it at their desk in school, before a match, or on the school yard and nobody else needs to know.
Encouraging children to be kind to themselves and to think in a self compassionate way is a great way to promote inner well-being and resilience. You can explain to children that they don't have to be the best at everything and that it is okay if the find some things difficult.
I always tell children that there is nobody better or worse than them, that each person is different and important and that there is no need to compare themselves to others, the most important thing is to believe in themselves and to always try their best.
Introducing affirmations to children is a good way to promote positive self talk in children. You can make your own affirmations by writing them on a piece of card and asking your child to draw a picture beside it or using images that your child likes. To make the card extra study you can laminate it.
You can say positive affirmations with your child before they leave school like “Today is a great day” “I am just right” or “I am loved”. You can also pop some affirmation cards in your child's bag that they could use throughout the day. Good affirmations for school and for homework time are “I believe in me” “I always try my best” or “I can do it”. It can also be nice to make a larger affirmation card and stick in on your child's bedroom wall.
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(Article published in 'Mums and Tots' - September 2018 Issue)