You probably remember that antsy feeling before the first day of school. It was a combination of excitement, a little bit of nervousness, and maybe some sadness about the end of vacation. Some kids worry about getting a mean teacher or having a bully from last year reappear in their class again. Mixed feelings during times of transition are normal and healthy! For instance, you might have had a mixture of excitement and fear before heading off to college or some jitters before your wedding. You can set your child up for a smooth transition into the new school year by helping them feel more in control of what is happening. Here are some suggestions that should help:
1. Start getting into a new routine.
- It’s likely that bedtimes and rising times have slowly crept up during the summer. Reset your children’s schedules gradually during the week before school by moving bedtimes 10 minutes earlier each night and practicing evening and morning rituals, such as making tomorrow’s lunch or setting out clothes the night before.
- Begin to review the daily school routine, “We’ll leave for school at …,” “You’re first class will be…” A large calendar can also be useful for children who learn best visually. You can count down the days to the start of school and write in cues about the daily schedule (e.g., “7:30am: Leave for School”).
- For older children and teens, set a tentative routine but allow them to have input. Do they prefer to take have a break after school and then complete homework after dinner, or would they rather finish it first so they have free time the rest of the evening? Allowing them to have a say builds planning skills and also shows them that you trust their judgment.
2. Make it concrete.
- If your child is starting school for the first time, or moving to a new school, it can be very helpful to take them on a tour of the building and, if possible, to meet their teacher(s) and school staff. Walk them from their classroom to areas that they might frequent such as their locker, playground, and cafeteria. Ask them, “How do you feel here?”, or “Are you feeling happy/scared?” to help them verbalize their emotions.
- Let your children get involved in choosing their own supplies and school wardrobe. This will help build some positive anticipation of the upcoming change and also help them mentally review what they will need to for each class. Also, allowing children the power to control aspects of some parts of their lives can lower their anxieties about other parts they can’t.
- If possible, in a fun way, have them review some of their skills from last year before school starts (e.g., make a game out of spelling or math problems, have them describe a book they read over the summer). Anything to get them back into learning mode will help!
3. Open a conversation and listen respectfully.
- Ask open-ended questions about what your child is thinking or feeling about the start of school. Try not to assume that they might feel one way or the other, rather ask questions that invite conversations, such as, “Is there anything that’s on your mind about the start of school?”, “What are you looking forward to the most/least?”.
- For older children, rather than peppering them with lots questions in the first few days (e.g., “Did you have a good day?”), let them know that you’re available to listen at all times and on their terms.
- If your child shares worries or concerns, let them know that some nervousness is normal. It’s helpful to draw on your own experiences, “I used to feel a little worried about where I would sit in the cafeteria too”.
- Listen to your child’s concerns, but don’t rush to fix the problem. Teaching your child to identify his/her feelings and that they are valid is the most important thing. Children, like all of us, want to “feel felt.”
- It can be helpful to bring up times in the past when they had similar feelings and ask how they handled them, “Remember how you felt before you started soccer? What did you do then?” Just asking these questions, without trying to fix the problem, can help your child draw on those resources again.
4. Go slow and maintain a positive outlook.
- Your attitude about the start of school can have a large impact on your child’s. Try to stay positive and don’t complain about the teacher or school. Monitor your own stress levels, take breaks, and reach out to your support network when needed.
- Taking it easy the first few weeks is fine! Give children and teens some extra leeway in the beginning, especially when it comes to getting homework done. Transitions can be stressful for everyone and sometimes the best cure is to cut back on unnecessary commitments and plan some quiet family time in the evenings.
A great start for the school year will help children with the jitters, clear the head, and set routines that will help your family have a successful year.