Packing a School Bag with Coping Skills

By Wendy Miller, West Virginia Birth to Three RAU-1 Program Director

I planned my very first camping trip ever this year. Wild horses and an island three states away were involved. I was nervous. Quite a few questions and worst-case scenarios ran through my head. How do I get there? How do I put up a tent? What if it rains? How do I make my morning coffee? Do wild horses attack people? Since I had no past experience from which to draw, I researched what to eat, how to avoid attack by wild horses and bugs, and how to survive a storm in a tent. I practiced setting the tent up in the living room, which was much too small for the mansion I purchased, so I set it up in the back yard. I gave myself pep talks, saying “If Girl Scouts can do it, so can I” and “I bought a standard transmission car not knowing how to drive it and did just fine.”  I was ready.

My maiden camping experience is much like a situation many children will soon face: the first day of school. For some, this may be going to school for the first time ever, and for others it may be a new school or a new classroom. This journey is not a vacation to a warm, sandy island with beautiful creatures, and it is probably not his or her choice to go, yet they will find themselves with a new experience and unfamiliarities to face. If I felt so much trepidation with something as unimposing as a camping trip, consider how a young child might feel with something as grandiose as school. Surely they will have concerns: Will I have friends? What are the rules? Will there be toys I like? What will happen if I get sick? While I drew from my long history of coping mechanisms to prepare and calm myself, young children’s bags are not yet packed with a rich repertoire of self-calming techniques. How, then, will they sort through a sticky web of feelings to lessen their fears and build excitement?

Since young children don’t have many memories to lean on or a pocketful of coping skills, let them lean on us. This is a rich opportunity to share coping skills that will last a lifetime. We can anticipate their questions and explore solutions together. We can talk about what to expect and how he feels – his hopes, dreams, and concerns. We may reminisce about a positive change – how she felt beforehand, her concerns, and how things turned out great. Maybe we can visit the classroom in advance to meet the teacher. And when the day comes, perhaps we can hint at the hope of a fun task or something to look forward to such as, “try to find a friend who owns a bunny” or “see if there is a book in the reading area that you have at home.” Let her know that she is not alone in this new adventure and her friends are most likely feeling the same way. Remind him that when he gets home, you will be available to talk about all the fun things they learned as well as the worries he has. A little supportive investment now will go a long way.

My investment in preparations paid off. I wasn’t eaten by a horse, I learned that cold brew coffee from a can is almost as satisfying as it is fresh and hot, and mosquitoes laugh at dryer sheets. Next year I will be a little more prepared with a deluxe air mattress and extra batteries, because now I do know what to expect.

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