By Sara Kendall,
LICSW, Vice President of Clinical Operations for MHA
You probably love summer as much as I do, but we’re all about to make the annual transition to a new school year. That transition is not always easy for children—or their parents—but there are some simple ways parents can help their kids feel their best for school. The American Psychological Association and Kids Health offer a range of insights on the topic of transitioning back to school. I’ve summarized some helpful ideas below.
Adjust to a New Routine: Starting school for the first time, entering the next grade or going to a different school can be unsettling. Remind your kids that everyone (even the teachers!) feels a bit nervous about the first day of school. With a little time to adjust, this new experience will become an everyday routine. Accentuate the Positive: If your child seems anxious, emphasize the positive things about going back to school, such as reconnecting with old friends, meeting new classmates who could become friends, and getting involved in activities like sports, music and clubs. A run to the store for some cool school supplies could do wonders. Make
Adjustments: Consider adjusting your own schedule to make the back-to-school transition smoother. It’s especially beneficial that first week for parents to be home at the end of the school day. Of course many working moms and dads don’t have that flexibility, so instead try to arrange your evenings to give your kids as much time as they need, especially during those first few days. Do this intentionally—schedule time to just be with your kids.
Ask and Listen: Ask your kids about their transition back to school—and then listen. Phrase your questions so they can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Who are your teachers? Who is in your classes? How many new friends have you made? What are their names? What are they like? What’s good about the classes you like? What’s not as good about the classes you don’t like as much? Asking questions this way can spark discussion in ways that asking “Did you have a good day?” really can’t. Their answers may help you discover if the thought of schoolwork stressing them out, if they’re afraid they won’t make new friends or get along with their teachers, or if they are feeling added pressure this year to make the varsity team or get the lead role in the school play. If your kids will be starting their college search, recognize that this can be especially stressful. Emphasize that you are always there to listen, no matter what concerns them. And remember, they’re not always looking for advice. Sometimes they just want to be heard.
Remember Yourself: While you’re being intentional with time for your children, also schedule in some time for yourself. You’re likely coming at this school transition already overwhelmed from work and daily parenting responsibilities. Taking time for self-care will make you feel better. You’ll also be modeling healthy behavior that will help your children recognize the importance of self-care. Parents can help ease those back-to-school butterflies by beginning the transition to a consistent school night routine a week or two before school starts. Returning gradually to school year structure and knowing what’s expected of them can be reassuring for children. That can be especially helpful if thoughts of a new school year have them feeling unsettled or anxious. Building some structure into each school day can provide consistency. When children know what to expect every day, it can help your household to run more smoothly all school year long. Here are some suggestions.
Get Enough Sleep: Establish a reasonable bedtime so that your kids are well rested and ready to learn in the morning.
Eat a Healthy Breakfast: Children are more alert and do better in school if they eat a good breakfast every day. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a great breakfast that’s simple to make…your kids can even make their own!
Avoid the Morning Rush: The night before, help your kids organize and set out what they need for school the next morning. Lay out clothes, make sure homework and books are in their backpacks, then place backpacks by the door ready to go. Write Down Key Info: Help them track need-to-know details such as their locker combination, when classes and lunch start and end, their homeroom and classroom numbers, and the names of teachers and/or bus drivers.
Post the Schedule: Use a wall calendar to record due dates for assignments, test dates, dates and times for games, practices or rehearsals, and days when there is an early release or no school. Does your kid carry a phone? All of this can be managed in a calendar app that you can access, too. Keep in mind that every child is different and every new school year is different, so things that may once have been welcomed with excitement may now be something feared, or vice versa. By having open communications and dialogues with their children, parents can better know what their kids are thinking and feeling. That sets up parents to acknowledge if we can help with solutions to any problems our kids might be experiencing. It also makes sense to have a plan for how we might manage those things that don’t go so well.
Welcome your children’s input, involve them in the decision-making process, give praise for their hard work when they complete their homework or a project, and keep some downtime open for family fun. Any new situation can bring on anxiety. That’s normal. But even with planning and reassurance some children may develop real physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, associated with the start of school.
If you’re concerned that your child’s worries go beyond the normal back-to-school jitters, speak with your child’s doctor, teacher, or school counselor, or call MHA’s BestLife Emotional Health and Wellness Center at 1-844-MHA-WELL.