For many kids, a long awaited summer seems to fly by and before they know it, it’s time to start the new school year. As summer comes to a close and the first day of school approaches, back-to-school anxiety can set in for many students, and parents may struggle to figure out how to help their child get ready to make a smooth transition. When a child is returning to the same school they’ve been in, parents often don’t understand what their child’s discomfort is about or know how to help ease their mind. Individual children will express a range of responses to going back to school, from typical jitters, to negative thinking, to debilitating nerves. As a school counselor and child therapist, I often meet with families who need guidance to better support and prepare their child for a positive start to a new school year. After many years of working with school-aged children individually and in groups, I’ve gained useful insights into what may be underlying a child’s worries and lack of enthusiasm about returning to school, as well as practical suggestions that range from very basic to more proactive for how to address them.
Throughout your child’s summer travels and experiences, keep the reality of returning to school and taking the next step of entering a new grade present in your conversations with them. Think out loud about the summer “treasures” and stories they may want to share with their new classmates and teachers in the fall. When you’re picking up shells on the beach, souvenirs at a park or museum, or unpacking your child’s camp trunk, identify something that can serve as a transitional object for your child to bring in with them when school starts. Encourage your child to keep a journal of their summer adventures and projects to share with their new teacher, or to read a popular book that they can discuss with classmates. These kinds of things serve as bridges from home to school and conversation starters with new teachers and peers.
As much as possible, maintain a consistent routine of activities and a regular sleep-wake schedule over the summer months. This is especially important to implement in the final weeks of August. Nothing makes it harder to get back in the swing of school than being stuck in a pattern of staying home much of the day, going to bed late and sleeping in late. Even in the summer, kids’ minds and bodies thrive with some structure and routine, and this consistency will lend itself to a much smoother start at school.
During summer break, kids go off in all different directions and may not see their school friends as regularly, if at all. Less frequent contact with peers from school can cause some insecurity for kids who wonder if their friends will still like them, or if they will have been replaced by the time school starts. To help your child reconnect with friends and ease even typical anxiety about relationships changing over the summer, make several play dates with kids from school, especially in the weeks leading up to the first day back. This opportunity to spend quality time together, one-on-one or in a small group, will enhance your child’s sense of security and remind them that they have friends and social support they can count on back at school.
Change is hard for most of us and making a shift from being carefree to learning and achieving can feel overwhelming. Help ease your child back into a school mindset by doing some quick and easy back-to-school shopping. Kids often get excited about the small things like new pencils, markers, and folders with their favorite designs and characters. A relatively inexpensive trip to CVS for some fun new supplies can help generate a more positive attitude and a sense of preparedness in your child. Some children feel most at ease after they’ve packed their backpack with their new school supplies and planned their outfits for the first few days. After doing this, they feel more in control and ready to tackle the challenges ahead.
Not knowing what to expect is often a major source of anxiety for children and there are many unknowns as kids head into their first day of school. Some schools offer an opportunity for all students to come in the day before classes officially start for a brief, casual meet and greet with their new teachers and classmates. For more sensitive students, knowing where their classroom and desk are, receiving their schedule, finding their locker or cubby, and chatting with teachers and kids about what’s coming up can alleviate a lot of worry. If your child’s school doesn’t offer this kind of preview, find time to visit the school’s playground and library a few times before school starts to help your child get reacquainted with their surroundings and remember that school is a comfortable, safe place. Also, don’t hesitate to check in with your child’s guidance counselor or principal in August to see if more individualized previewing of the upcoming school year can be arranged for a particularly nervous student.
Lastly, remind your child (and yourself) that they can do this! The more parents can help their child be prepared to go back to school, the more confident and ready they’ll feel and the smoother the transition will be. At the end of the day, kids will follow the lead of capable educators and supportive parents who believe in them to guide them as they adapt to new expectations and explore new horizons.
Wishing everyone a great year!