The dog days of summer continue to simmer, while many students enthusiastically or begrudgingly return to school, forgetting notions of just one more swim at the pool or extended video game duel. Some kids are eager to reconnect with classmates, discover a vibrant classroom, and join extracurricular activities. Some are indifferent and for others, the start of school ignites worry and dread. Common themes I have heard over the years include: what if I can’t open my locker in time and then I’m late to class?, what if I don’t have any friends in my classes?, there’s no way I can take all these AP classes, my mom couldn’t get me new clothes this year and people are going to think I’m weird wearing the same thing, I need extended time on tests and I’m not sure this teacher will allow it, the school bully will be back this year and it makes me want to throw up when I see her in the hallway, and of course, school’s boring!
Whether your child is feeling excited, indifferent, or apprehensive, transitioning from summer to school mode is stressful for most families. Here are some ideas to help you and your kids navigate and manage this change.
Before School Starts:
- Plan a shopping trip to collect all necessary school supplies. Most kids want some choice, so it’s a good idea to take them along. Because shopping with kids is not exactly a parent’s dream, negotiate with your child a special activity that you can do after shopping. Emphasize that it’s important for them to have a say in their school supplies, that the excursion will be very busy and possibly stressful, and you’ll be able to do something fun afterwards. Fun doesn’t necessarily mean food or an extra purchase. Most kids want choice in how they spend a half hour with you!
- For younger children, look at a calendar together and count down the days until school starts. For some children, start this process even a month before the first day of school; for others, a week ahead of time. You know your child the best and how they respond to change. Most teens have a pretty good idea of when school starts, but talking about the date in relation to other scheduled activities is helpful.
- Begin the transition to regular bed and wake times approximately 1 week before school starts. If you have a later summer bedtime, gradually trim back so bedtime the night before school starts is the same one they will have during the school year. The same goes for wake up time. Can you imagine if your middle-schooler was waking up 10AM in the summer and then had to abruptly wake up at 6AM to catch the bus? Sounds like a super stressful first day of school!
- If the school is new for your child or you anticipate that she feels more comfortable after having time to explore new surroundings, arrange a time to visit the school to become familiar with the building and meet the teacher. Most school administrators and teachers are around the week before school starts and will work with you.
- Talk about expectations for homework, chores at home, and use of electronics. The shift to working more and having less free time is disappointing for most people! As your kids get older, they should participate more in these negotiations. Discuss what you value as a family, your expectations, and rewards and consequences for follow through.
- Think about the juggling act to manage work, home, school, and a few minutes to yourself and with your partner. Jot down some ideas on priority and non-priority tasks, who can support you, and how you can take care of yourself. Easier said than done, but you might find it a relief to let go of something trivial, delegate another, and take a couple minutes to yourself (preferably not in a locked bathroom with kids banging on the door!).
When School Starts:
- Expect that your child or teen will seem more tired, irritable, or excited. Expecting this change in mood can start conversations about how it’s normal to experience a variety of feelings when making a schedule change. Brainstorm with your child ways in which they can calm themselves (what works for them now?), who they can talk to (you, grandparent, friends, teacher, counselor), and what they can do when they get home to wind down. For example, It’s been a long week with a lot of new things to think about. You seem more crabby than usual and I wonder if it’s because there’s been homework, new teachers to get to know, and some of the kids can say mean things. Feelings like those seem normal and to be expected. Let’s think of a couple things you can do when you get home tonight and over the weekend to blast off some stress!
- Help your child plan downtime into his or her day. For introverts, this might be nesting and reading in their bedroom reading for 30 minutes, meandering the neighborhood on a bike, getting lost in an art project, or playing with one friend. For extroverted children who get their batteries charged by being with other people, consider ways they can play/hang out with other children in activities that can be supervised, but allow time for physical activity and socialization.
- Try to keep your child on a regular sleep/wake schedule, even on the weekend. We now know that going to bed and waking up at the same time helps us feel the most balanced. If you decide to negotiate a later bedtime, Friday and Saturday nights are best, and limit the extra time to 30-60 minutes max.
If your child seems overwhelmingly distressed or is refusing to get ready for school and walk into the building, consult the school psychologist, counselor, and/or your primary care physician right away. Every year, some children really struggle with the transition to school and these professionals expect urgent calls. The problem is usually straightforward to address, but it must be done immediately. The longer kids stay out of school, the more difficult it can be to get back and grow academically, socially, and emotionally.
The following websites offer more in-depth and helpful back-to-school information and resources:
Best wishes for a great start to the 2012-2013 school year!