Why are the last weeks of the school year so hard?

Why are the last weeks of the school year so hard?

We think of summer vacation as a joyous time for kids, but it’s also a gaping void swirling with uncertainty.

I work as a psychologist in a small K-8 school with a mission for gifted education. And the last few weeks of every school year feel like trying to surf the tunnel of a wave that could come crashing down any moment. The teachers feel it, too — our art teacher just spent two days in the hospital with stress-related stomach issues and today I’m supporting our second grade teacher as we try to keep her from, well, to use a technical term, “freaking out.” For teachers and administrators, the source of the stress is pretty simple: Kids seem mean and disorganized. But the real question is why: Why at the end of every school year do kids struggle?

From what I’ve seen, the answer is transitions. We think of summer vacation as a joyous time for kids, the release from duties and expectations. But it’s also a gaping void swirling with uncertainty: Without the “container” of school, what will the days look like? Will they be able to see their friends? The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. But what about all the anxiety and anticipation leading up to that step?

During the school year, kids also make versions of classroom “families.” They work, play, eat and explore together about eight hours per day — certainly longer than they have on weekdays with their at-home families. And when the school year ends, kids feel the loss of these family-like groups. Anticipating that loss can create emotions like anger, sadness and even grief.

So the question is what to do about it. How can we help shepherd students through these last weeks in a way that makes the experience positive both for them and for us as teachers and parents? Here are some ideas I have found over the years that can help:

  1. Make a Calendar: One of the scariest aspects of summer is uncertainty. Sitting down together to make a calendar and then displaying it in your house where everyone can check it can help kids know what to expect.
  2. Allow Choice: Try to allow your child to make a few choices in the summer plans. This can be super small: Maybe the first Tuesday of the month your child chooses to get ice cream and watch a baseball game together. Or a child gets to help pick the AirBnB for vacation. Choice offers a sense of power and agency over plans that can otherwise seem scary.
  3. Discuss Highlights: Ask kids what they are excited about for the summer. Looking forward to something with anticipation and excitement is much different than looking into the future with uncertainty and trepidation.
  4.  Model Emotions: Talk in front of kids about how sometimes ending school (or a job or another “ending”) can be a little sad, scary, difficult, happy, exciting. The idea here is that they may start to wonder about how they are feeling about the end of the school year, they have heard some possible ideas, which can help them start to put words to complex emotions.
  5. Express Gratitude: Kids may want to express gratitude to their teachers or friends. This is a great way to both connect and also allow for healthy closure. 

Change brings challenge. Many of us have seen small children get dysregulated in the “between times” and even for older children (and adults!) transitions can be challenging. It’s not that a child means to be mean. It may simply be the unavoidable externalization of feelings they can’t express in any other way. By helping kids caretake their internal experience around change, we can also help them act in more productive ways. Have a great summer, everyone!