By Elizabeth Richards

Parents often recognize anxiety and the resulting challenging behaviors that can happen at the beginning of a school year. What many don’t realize is that the end of the school year can be just as stressful, particularly when children have big changes ahead.

Transitions, both big and small, can be a huge source of anxiety for children – and they don’t always know how to express it. Sometimes, this means you’re hearing from the school a lot more than usual, with concerns about your child. Or you are seeing increased clinginess, tantrums, and fear from your child at home.

It can be confusing to sort out the feelings your child is having, since they may also be showing signs of excitement about the upcoming changes. Emotions may swing quickly from excitement and joy to anger and upset. Behaviors may also rapidly change, without warning.

While big transitions, like changing schools, are often more difficult, don’t discount smaller changes. For some kids, moving from one classroom to another can be just as tough. Children who are highly sensitive and desire rigid structure and routines may have an even harder time than those with a more flexible temperament.

Although you can’t stop the changes from happening – school will end, routines may change significantly, and your child will have to adapt to new people – you can make it easier by paying close attention to a range of factors. Your child may not have the words to describe what they’re feeling, so it’s up to you to be proactive. Try the following suggestions to keep things on an even keel as the school year ends.

Make sure their basic needs are consistently met

The end of the school year can throw regular routines off, but it’s important to continue attending to nutrition, hydration, exercise, and sleep. Pack some healthy snacks and keep water bottles handy. Spend time outside and make sure your child is getting plenty of exercise. When children have the chance to burn excess energy, their nervous system is better equipped to handle uncertainty and fear. If end-of-year events are disrupting your child’s sleep schedule, they may have a lower threshold for stress and anxiety. Try to avoid too many late nights so your child can get the sleep they need. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations are 10-13 hours of sleep for children ages 3-5, and 9-12 hours for children ages 6-12.

Prepare your child for the change – but don’t dwell on it.

Abrupt changes can increase anxiety, so whenever possible take small steps along the way to ease your child into a different routine. For instance, if they’ll soon need to get up earlier to get to camp on time, start getting them up five or ten minutes earlier each week. Visit their new school or child-care program before they attend, if possible. Create picture schedules for the new routines and read books about transitions. It’s also important to notice how often you, and other well-meaning adults, are bringing up the transition. Talking about it too much could cause more anxiety. Notice how your child responds when you talk about the end of the year, and adjust accordingly.

Offer patience, encouragement, and empathy

Often, your child simply needs to feel heard and understood. They also need to know you believe in them. Self-care is important during this time so that you have the capacity to offer patience and empathy, even when challenging behaviors arise. If your child is suddenly demonstrating aggressive behavior, you might say, “I can see you are feeling very upset. I wonder if you are feeling nervous or angry about the end of the year? Change can be really tough. I’m here to listen if you need to talk about it.” Dramatic play can also be a useful tool for parents. Sometimes, children are more willing and able to demonstrate their feelings while taking on a role during play.

Build in downtime

If your child is constantly on the go they won’t have the time or space to process some of those big feelings. If you begin to notice more upsets, aggression, or challenging behaviors, it might be time to pull back on some of the extras. Offer up a day where your child gets to decide what happens – do they want to go to a park, play a game with family, or just lie in their room and daydream all day? Be available during this downtime in case they want to talk – but don’t hover.

Keep your own emotions in check

Transitions can be tough on parents too. Honor your feelings while making sure you aren’t projecting them to your child. If they ask a question that hasn’t been determined yet (like how they will get to their new school), it’s okay to say you don’t know the answer, while assuring them that the adults involved will figure it out. Highlight the positives of the new situation as much as possible.

Endings can be as difficult as beginnings, especially for young children. Validating the way your child feels while helping them recognize their own growth will help them move smoothly into whatever comes next.

Elizabeth Richards has been an early childhood professional for nearly 30 years. She is a preschool teacher, freelance writer, and early childhood trainer. She has led parent workshops and developed courses for ECE professionals, particularly around managing challenging behaviors, art, and play. She has two teenage sons.