Back to school: That exciting period of freshly sharpened pencils, brand-new pairs of shoes, and the chance to meet new teachers and friends.
But while this season can be a thrilling time for kids, most also start to experience increased stress, worries and uncertainty. Not only are they unsure what a new school year will mean for them, but they're also going from several months of freedom and relaxation back into the routine and busyness of school.
Some children will verbalize their worries to you — but others will express them in the form of physical complaints, changes in mood, sleep and appetite, or increased tantrums and irritability.
As a clinical child psychologist, I often hear parents ask how to make this transition go as smoothly as possible. Here's what I tell them:
1. Make shopping for school supplies a fun adventure.
In the weeks before school, make plans with your children for the annual pilgrimage to procure new school supplies and clothes.
Many parents tell me that they find the process of getting school supplies to be stressful, with crowded stores and that must-needed item nowhere to be found. To help, I recommend re-conceptualizing the experience as an adventure, or an opportunity to have a nice day together before school starts again. If you and your child don't find shopping to be a pleasant experience, pair it with a fun activity that you can enjoy together afterwards.
2. Encourage kids to open up about back to school blues.
As the start of school approaches, let your children talk honestly about their feelings for the upcoming year. Note any anxious thoughts that arise, especially ones that begin with “What if?” When parents hear these kinds of thoughts, the natural inclination is to reassure their kids with clichés like, “Don’t worry” or “You’ll be okay."
But offering this kind of reassurance is a temporary fix — and often the child's anxiety remains. Instead, encourage your children to speak further about the concerns they're having and discuss how you both can address the worries directly.
3. Get into a routine before the first day of school.
Like adults, children are at their best when they're well rested and fed nutritious food. In the weeks leading up to school, adjust bedtime and wake up times to the school schedule, with a healthy breakfast in the morning.
I also find it helpful to have kids do a dress rehearsal of the first day by traveling the route to school, walking through the building, and perhaps even meeting their new teacher ahead of time, if possible.
4. Take care of yourself, too.
While you're doing all this work to help your children prepare for school, it's also important to take care of your own needs. After all, you're also going through a transition. Take time to check in with yourself and address any worries, concerns, or fears you may have, especially if your little one is entering school for the first time. Ask for help and support from loved ones when needed, and make sure you rest each day, even if only for a few minutes.
5. Let kids still enjoy the end of summer.
While it's important to make sure your child is prepared for school, it's equally important to spend time in the present moment. It’s still summer after all — enjoy it! Do your best to mindfully savor summer moments, and encourage your children to focus on school only when making preparations.
The process of transitioning doesn't have to signal the end of summer. The key is to make sure your child knows that preparing for school can take place while still enjoying summertime adventures.