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How to Use Transition Times to Ease Back to School Stress

August 12, 2019
By Beth Herrild

August and back-to-school season have always evoked mixed emotions for me. I feel sadness at the end of lazy, long, warm days of summer. Having my kids around for long periods of unstructured time is such a gift (well mostly). Summer has always been a time to take trips and spend lots of time outside, taking advantage of the long daylight hours. One day this summer, my daughter and I took a couple of pool floaties to a local lake. The water was warm and the sunshine glorious. We spent several spontaneous hours alternately relaxing on the floaties (while eating M&Ms) and swimming while pushing them. Let’s just say, pulling myself back up onto the floatie was much harder and funnier than it should have been! The memories of these times will sustain me during the grey, short days of winter when my daughter is away at college. I hate the thought of the pace of life speeding up and getting more scheduled and restrictive.


Still, fall and back-to-school do bring a welcome dose of structure to most parents’ lives. But, it also brings a challenging whirlwind of activity. The first mountain to climb is the landslide of paperwork that needs signing and filling out the first few days of school. After that, time seems to compress. As parents, how do we fit all the activities into the short period of time between school and bedtime? The transitions among all of the different activities can become sticky and invite conflict. What if you could make those times less stressful, and use them to create connection and memories with your child? What are your toughest daily transitions?

• Getting kids out of bed in the morning?

• Getting them to school?

Not physically changing locations, as in homeschooling, can make transitions even more difficult and having rituals even more important!

Take, for instance, the transition between school and home in the afternoon. This could be right after school or after an extracurricular activity or after-school care. Kids (and parents) are often tired, hungry and emotionally depleted at this time of day making it ripe for conflict. What if you created a coming home from school ritual? Children love rituals. Rituals supply structure and repetition and thus give children a sense of safety and calm. They like to know that certain things will always happen, especially when they are encountering new things in the world.

The Value of Ritual

When you use ritual to mark a transition, your child knows that, for instance, we read a story and then I go to sleep. It allows her to close her eyes feeling like all is right with the world. A ritual can be short, like holding up the sign language sign for I Love You when you part; or longer, like reading together. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It does need to be sustainable. So choose something that you can keep doing without a lot of hardship. The ritual I designed to mark the transition home at the end of the day went like this:

• Come inside

• Put down backpacks

• Take off shoes

• Wash hands

• Tea time

You can pick up a tea set for next to nothing at a thrift shop, or purchase one new. We put a kid-friendly beverage in the tea pot, often hot cocoa. We ate finger sandwiches, usually a peanut butter sandwich cut into strips. The food and drink helped to take the edge off of cranky hungry feelings. While we were eating and drinking, we told Two Truths and a Lie about our days. This was a great way to learn about the kids’ days and even to share some of my day with them. They loved having permission to tell a lie! Other ideas I’ve collected for after-school rituals:

• Everyone collapses onto the sofa immediately to read together or play a game together.

• A rousing game of Tag or Hide and Seek to release pent up energy.

• Sing at the top of your lungs together in the car on the way home.

• All of these and many more ideas are great for homeschool families to mark the transition out of the school day.


What other transitions are particularly difficult at your house? Bedtime rituals can be powerfully helpful. Maybe you draw or color together for 30 minutes before bedtime as a way to calm down and be together? One of my favorite bedtime rituals is reading, but also making up stories together. One of you starts telling a story; then the other person adds to it. You go back and forth until you’re stuck. This can be done with several children.

When my children were young, I used to do a ritual with them that we called Animal Bridge. They would lie on their stomachs in bed. I would try to imitate the way a particular animal would feel if it walked on their backs. They would try to guess the animal. For instance, a mouse might lightly scurry, so I would use four fingertips and lightly, quickly move them across their backs. To imitate a snake I might use my forearm to slither across their backs. For an elephant, I would use my hands as feet and push down harder to simulate the elephant walking more slowly and heavily! Another beloved bedtime ritual was reading from a book of children’s bedtime meditations, such as I Am Yoga.


Feel free to take some of these ideas for a test run in your family. Only you can decide what rituals are right for you. Back-to-school time is a great opportunity to create new rituals to give your kids feelings of safety and predictability while helping to ease those tricky sticky transition points throughout the day.