Hey, School, Can’t We Just Start Slow?

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School starts for us Monday. It’s already being a tough transition here (want to hear more? I wrote about tough transitions in my weekly email. Sign up here, and get “Back-to-School When Transitions Are Tough” as part of my Back-to-School Survival Kit). So I took some brilliant advice from many a friend, slowed down, tried to cut kids some limited slack, and planned to just ease into it.

If only we could. But when school starts, for us and for other families I’ve heard from, it starts in earnest. Two–count ’em, two–mandatory meetings for after school activities or sports are scheduled for the first day of school here. For some sports, those meetings happened weeks ago, and the kids are already practicing, some with teammates and coaches they’d never previously met. Clubs are getting organized, commitments requested, the frenzy beginning. Let’s hit the ground running, people! Get ready! Practice Play Meet Join Repeat!

Oof. Especially for children who are more reserved, who spent a quiet summer with family or who just take some time to acclimate to a new school year, it’s really hard to plunge right in—-and equally hard to join in late. Hitting the ground running can mean new students, shy students and students who are just plain uncertain aren’t going to run at all.

I’m so glad that the teachers, coaches and others who surround my children and give us all so much are enthusiastic about the new school year. And I am nothing but grateful for their willingness to provide schedules early, so we can plan and decide and evaluate and help our children work out what will make for the best possible school year.

If you’re in this boat, some thoughts: Ask teachers to hold a mental place in activities your children might be interested in, and to offer a second chance to sign-up–and not to nail down roles and jobs in the first week, which makes joining in later harder. For must-start activities, like sports, hold as much space around them as you can. Don’t add a back-to-school shopping stop on the way home from practice, or plan an outing with friends. Let the practice or meeting be the one thing that happens that afternoon.

Ask your children what they think they need to do to regroup after a first day. Even young children can surprise us with what they know–I still remember my daughter, on an early day of first grade and faced with a play date I’d planned after school, wailing “but I”m so tired!” She still just wants to come home after school most days and be alone, and on days when she goes straight into another activity, it’s best not to drag her to the family dinner table or plan anything else even now, years later. Even my much more social son agrees that he doesn’t want something every day after school. They just want to come home, go outside, read or draw or, well, lay on the floor and torment each other. I don’t really get that last one, but then, I’m an only child. (Actually, they just want to come home and play video games or watch TV–but I don’t let them. Even on the first day, that’s a no here. Would it help them unwind? It would. Would it start a trend of begging for screen time, usually allowed only on weekends, every day after school? It would. If that’s not where you want to be–and it’s totally cool if it is–then believe me, if you or your sitter says no for long enough, they’ll find something else to do.)

We can’t remake the world around our kids’ preferences, and it will always feel like life favors people who can jump right in and get going. Some kids can do that once they’re comfortable in the environment again–they just need the transition period to end. For others, it’s never easy. If that’s your child (or you), then acknowledging those different needs can help, even if nothing else changes. My suggested reading here is a little obvious–Susan Cain’s “Quiet“–and note that she has a book for teens, too: “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts.” I wrote about it in the NYT here: Is Your Teen’s Introversion a Problem for Your Teen–or You?.

All that said, I admit that my favorite activities are the ones that hold off a bit, to give children a chance to regroup, to start the school year with plenty of afternoon down time at home or in their after school programs. The ones that let the kids reconnect with each other and talk about what sports and clubs or activities they might be interested in for a day or two before starting up in earnest. It’s a busy season, yes, and there’s lots to pack in before the weather changes and the holidays commence and a new semester is upon us. But there’s something to be said for letting the inevitable snowball start slow.

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