By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW
Picture this: It’s the first day of school and the sun is shining like a spotlight on something special about to begin. Crisp new clothes are laid out so we can present our best selves on the outside while internally, hopes and dreams dance around like jitterbugs in our hearts and minds.
Thoughts, like soapy bubbles, appear and combine before popping and giving way to new ones:
“I can’t wait to see my friends.”
“I hope this will be a good year!”
“I am so excited to see who is in my class.”
And then, like a snake in the grass, self-doubt appears and rears its pesky head:
“What if no one likes me this year?”
“What if I do something to embarrass myself?”
“What if I do a bad job and get into trouble?”
A Likely Story
Now, ask yourself exactly whom you were picturing when reading all this: an elementary-age student? a teenager? a teacher?
The reality is that thoughts like these probably occur to most people, children and adults alike, before the start of something new and different. And what is most exciting is that the way we teach our kids to handle these times can deeply shape them in positive ways and help them build resilience and confidence.
In teaching kids how to handle these times, we can be thoughtful about it, but we don’t have to totally overthink it. In order to have a NICE start to the school year, let’s remember these important points:
- Normalize: Normalize this experience! Everyone is going through the same process to some degree, so let’s talk to kids about how being nervous before a new school year is one of the most normal things to feel. Tell them stories about when you were younger and embarking on a new school year. For all you educators out there, empathize with kids and tell them about how you get restless the night before the first day of school and have your own worried thoughts about what people are going to think of you. Kids are usually shocked to hear that adults also struggle with confidence at times. When kids can see in others their own insecurities, these doubts will loosen their grip.
- Identify: Give children a chance to voice their specific fears out loud and then name the feelings that are attached. Sometimes just saying out loud what worries us and sharing it with someone caring and supportive gives just enough space for this doubt to be effectively held and honored, thereby making it less overwhelming. Also, it may be helpful to point out that sometimes nervousness and excitement can feel similar and get a little tangled up with each other. These big electric feelings that often race through us before a big new “thing” are not always bad, but can help us feel alive and really in the moment. Remember: It’s okay to have BIG feelings, and feelings demand to be felt!
- Catch the confidence: When we allow kids to talk about their feelings, we honor their feelings of self-doubt, normalize those feelings, and identify them. However, we must also contain these conversations in a way where we can guide students to see the natural confidence that exists within us all. So remember to circle back to examples of success kids have experienced in the past and remind them of these times. (“Remember when you were so nervous before your chorus concert and then totally rocked that solo?” Or, “You told me you did not want to go to camp this summer because you didn’t know anyone, but you went anyway and you got Camper of the Week, caught the most fish of anyone in your group, and made three new friends!”) When kids can tell us what they are excited about, what they have been good at already, and what they want to keep getting better at, they are stimulating their own sense of confidence, and this can be very empowering.
- Embrace the and: Finally, we have normalized shaky nerves, called them out and talked about them, and caught some confidence to mix into the dialogue. Now it’s time for us to integrate it all and talk about the power of and. It can be helpful to teach kids that we don’t usually walk around with just one emotion inside us. Typically, we carry several feelings at once, and we can embrace this. We are humans who are capable of holding so much complexity, and we can think of this as a human superpower. Let’s offer to kids that while they may be struggling with self-doubt, it is possible for them to feel nervous and confident at the same time. Remind them of times they took on that emotional roller coaster and felt a combination of feelings: terrified and excited and brave and super cool . . . all at once! All too often, I hear well-intending parents say things to children like: “Don’t be nervous. There is nothing to be afraid of—you’re fine. Just go!” What if instead of trying to isolate the one desirable feeling, we considered holding and respecting the power of and—not denying any one feeling but rather inviting them all in? Perhaps we can shift our remarks to, “It’s okay to be nervous; we are all feeling that way today at least a little bit. Aaaaaaand we are confident too! And we are smart, and we are brave, and we are kind, and we are ready. And we can do this!”
And Off We Go!
So as we begin this new school year, I encourage us to hold onto the power of and. It might come in handy more often than we think. I like to think of and as the cool cousin of not yet with respect to growth mindset. When we teach our kids (and ourselves) the power of and, we allow ourselves to hold all our feelings. We give ourselves permission to see new challenges, like the start of a new school year, as a new opportunity, while feeling both nervous and confident. We give ourselves a new strategy through which we can shift away from seeing new experiences as obstacles to worry about, avoid, or dread. Let’s learn to embrace that which feels hard and give it its proper space, but pay more attention to the chances to experience our own undiscovered greatness!
After all, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.”
Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6), and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog www.amandasymmes.com.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.