It’s that time again. As summer winds down, we find ourselves wandering along store aisles, kids in tow, clutching the new school supply lists.
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Are your kids excited about a new school year? Are they nervous? Do you think they might have some back-to-school anxiety?
To help your child with these various emotions, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from, says pediatrician Ellen Rome, MD.
“Kids can feel pressure to handle all the changes,” says Dr. Rome. “They might wonder, Where am I going to be? Am I going to get lost? What’s the class going to be like? What’s the teacher going to be like? Will the work be a lot harder?”
There may be anticipation of a schoolyard bully from the year before or a worry about new friends and new situations. They may still harbor fears of the impact of COVID-19 on family members or themselves.
Dr. Rome provides tips on how to help your kids with back-to-school jitters.
Of course, some of the lessons of school have little to do with grades. With each day of school, your child is developing and practicing social skills.
“They are learning how to greet adults and teachers, as well as how to play with classmates and navigate the playground,” Dr. Rome says.
School offers a chance for your child to build skills for success in these day-to-day activities.
“You want your child to build their strengths — to successfully overcome a fear and come out on the other side, having succeeded,” Dr. Rome says. “You’re trying to get them into what we call a growth mindset, which is the ability to adapt, develop and work their hardest.”
Children learn to be stronger through experience. Here are some tips to help you support your kids.
1. Practice your morning routine
Go through all the steps of the morning, as well as the timing involved to get to school on time.
Help younger kids prep by setting out clothes the night before.
Make sure the alarm is set correctly. If the alarm is on the phone, make sure it’s not going to light up or make sounds, and turn the phone face down.
2. Do a school walk-through
If your child is particularly anxious about starting a new school year, you can ask the school if you can do a dry walk-through.
“For these kids, it can help to get there a few days before school starts,” says Dr. Rome. “Together, you can find their locker, classrooms and bathrooms. You can help your child navigate that first day of school by demystifying it.”
3. Encourage good communication
To help kids open up to you, remember to first put your phone away.
“We often have our own ‘personal enslavement devices.’ When your kid wants to talk, even if it’s an inconvenient time, practice putting your phone away,” advises Dr. Rome. “It not only helps you give them your full attention; it also models good behavior.”
Also, don’t waste precious time in the car.
“Use your vehicle as a vehicle of communication,” Dr. Rome recommends. “Kids may feel it’s safer to talk to mom when she is driving and not staring at you too much. It allows for casual conversation.”
Make it a daily habit to debrief. Ask your child about their day, every day.
Here are ways Dr. Rome suggests framing the conversation:
- “Tell me about your day. What was the best part? What was the worst about it?”
- “What was the funniest thing that happened today?”
- “What was the most embarrassing thing?”
You want to keep a pulse on what’s working and what isn’t.
Remember that sharing goes both ways. Be prepared to role model by answering those questions for yourself with your kids.
“You can explain to them how you handled stressful moments in your own life,” Dr. Rome says.
4. Take extra care for a child with anxiety or depression
There’s a difference between a child with first-day nerves and one dealing with anxiety or depression.
If your child has these particular challenges, partner with the school. You want to prep the teachers and care team at the school to know your child is at risk.
“For those who get serious panic attacks, you might teach them to ‘breathe a square.’ You can imagine a square with four sides, and you breathe in two sides, and breathe out two sides. And then the sides can go slower and slower,” Dr. Rome explains.
She also suggests offering the teacher insights about your child.
“For example, you might explain to the teacher, ‘If my kid seems like he’s tuned out, calling him out can make him more anxious. Here’s what has worked for us to help him tune in,’” Dr. Rome says.
Some possible supports for a child under stress could include:
- A gentle touch on the shoulder as the teacher goes by.
- Seating that isn’t near children that they anticipate are a source of stress.
- Partnering with a teacher to read that child’s cues.
5. Don’t neglect the basics: sleep and diet
Make sure your children are getting enough sleep when they go back to school, especially if you’re lax about bedtime over the summer. Most kids need between 9 to 9 1/2 hours of sleep every night.
For teens, caffeine can be a major issue.
“Between coffee drinks, soda or, worse yet, energy drinks with very high doses of caffeine, kids don’t realize that caffeine is a 24-hour drug that can interrupt their sleep,” Dr. Rome notes.
And having rules about where and when cell phones are charged can help year-round, so tweens and teens aren’t up texting or on social media into the wee hours of the night and then trying to get up for school.
“Also, start adjusting their bedtime from summer to school schedule ideally a month before school starts,” says Dr. Rome. “If your teen has been going to bed between midnight and 2 a.m. all summer, by early August, move that time up an hour a week until they’re going to sleep and waking up early enough to manage the transition back to school.”
When it comes to diet, kids really need a good breakfast, lunch and dinner, with or without a couple of snacks.
“They need to be in the habit of eating before school, especially for energy that will last until lunchtime,” Dr. Rome says.
And remember, it’s important to take pride in your child’s growth and development.
“For instance, when we think about a child learning to walk, here’s the parent beckoning and there’s the kid, who in the exact moment when they are reaching for the parent prove that they don’t need that parent to take those first steps,” Dr. Rome says.
So, in the same way, enjoy your child’s latest milestone as they step into the classroom — as a parent, take pride.