It's that time of the year when I used to get very wobbly, seeing the stationery sets in shops, the cooling of summer, the sewing of labels on uniform spelt three miserable words, back to school. It wasn't about homework or exams, I didn't mind the academic side it was the fear of the unknown. Who would I sit next to, who would be in my class, would they be nice? I was teased, bullied even, during my early teens and the end of the summer term was a welcome respite from it all. The holidays were so long I would almost forget the jibes and nastiness. I'd be surrounded by the loving cocoon of family, endless days of sunshine, icicles and the seaside. Then bang it all came abruptly to an end. The night before I wouldn't sleep, it was always a Wednesday, and I would watch the 9 o'clock weather with my parents, praying for a freak of nature, some unseasonal snow perhaps!?
For those who lack confidence going back to school is one of the most traumatic days of the year. When you enter the classroom not feeling great about yourself, it's very hard to find your place. Inevitably I would sit at the front of the class, partly because I was short sighted and hated wearing my glasses but also because I'd avoid the pit of mean girls at the back. The first break time is a minefield, with friendship groups forming in seconds, and very quickly you can feel quite alone.
The school system suits the resilient, not the under confident, and so many of us suffer, not because of our grades or performance, but because we aren't supported socially and emotionally. The Princess Diana Foundation has done some great work, nominating pupils as ambassadors to aid victims of bullying. They patrol the red bullying zones, set up a clinic for those in trouble and create friendship benches for loners, but this can't be found in every school.
Interestingly in other European countries 'Back to School' is seen as a more as positive event in the calendar. In France 'La Rentree' is viewed by adults and children as the beginning of a new year. There are tons of school year diaries for September to August, in every colour, style, brand. It is also seen as time of change, after a long vacation with bags of time to reflect on your life, articles talk about new resolutions and tips to make the jump to a new job, house, relationship. It's a much bigger deal than most other dates in the calendar like Valentines and Easter over which the Brits go nuts. And I know that in Nordic countries there are even parties for entering senior school celebrating your 'coming of age'.
Parents can inevitably struggle with this painful process. Many avoid talking about Back to School for fear of upsetting the present happy moment. It often gets left to the last minute or gets lost in the rush to prepare packed lunches and bags. Discussing your fears and hopes are perhaps one of the keys to dealing with uncertainty. If speaking isn't possible find another form of communications. I used to write it all out in a diary, and I encourage parents to offer the same. Confidence courses are also on the increase, they should be offered within schools, but in the meantime you need to hunt them out - the Self-Esteem Team offer workshops in schools that address issues such as body confidence and self-worth. The Girl Guides is also a very nurturing organisation, that fosters basic human qualities such as kindness, strength and bravery. Last year they even launched a badge celebrating body confidence.
There are also simple tips for the weeks and days before. Some American families create a fun advent style countdown, with treats and games and something special for the first day back. Also it's important to couch the whole experience in upbeat language and symbols. If your new pencil case has your favourite popstar on it the school desk will feel less alien. Mantras and affirmations also work well. The positive psychologist Seligman encourages parents to talk about the three great things that happened at the end of the day, a bit like Thanksgiving, rather than bemoaning bad traffic or boring meetings. If repeated over 21 days it will transform your outlook to glass half full, rather than empty.
I remember thinking on my last day at school, that those horrid moments were behind me, but I soon found out that there are 'first days back' all the way through life, new job, operations, bereavement. It is vital that children learn to manage these micro tests in life, and that those around them accompany them in their ups and downs. The greatest gift, greater than any exam grade or sports result, that we can give our children is the not just the ability to cope, but that of turning an ostensibly scary, destabilising situation into a formative and joyous one.