Back to School! Helping Kids Transition Well

Ready or not – it’s back to school time! Some parents can’t wait for the structure and routine of school to kick in; others are hesitant, as life becomes a bit more hectic and scheduled. As a mother of two school-aged girls and a college professor, I find it bittersweet – sad to see more relaxed summer days come to an end and yet excited for what the school year holds. 

Whatever you’re thinking and feeling, it’s our responsibility as parents to help prepare our kids for the inevitable ringing of the school bell and start of a new school year. So here are 10 quick tips to help mentally and emotionally prepare your child to return to school.

1. Get them back on a sleep schedule. Our brains function best (mentally and emotionally) when we are well rested. [Think 10-11 hours sleep/night for children ages five to twelve; 8-10 hours for teens.] And don’t forget good ‘ole sleep hygiene: we should be going to bed and getting up around the same time each day/night. 

2. Start explicitly talking about school-related things. For example, what is your child’s school schedule going to be; what friends and classmates are they excited to see; who are they nervous to see; what are they excited to learn? [Granted, some of you might be thinking: Well what if their answers are pretty negative to those questions. What do I do with that?Read # 4 below!]

3. Talk through what their routine is going to look like. Help children think through a typical school day. What is the morning routine, and more specifically, what are their responsibilities? What about after school? And bed time routine? For younger children it can be helpful to develop a responsibility chart (this can be with pictures and/or words); if you are going to use a responsibility chart, make them a part of creating it as this gives ownership and buy-in! 

4. Ask about feelings and allow space for fears, anxieties and worries to be expressed.  In other words, acknowledge their emotions.  

[Side note: I work with very well-intended parents and families who, without realizing it, are dismissive of their child’s feeling. The conversation might go something like this: 

Child:  Mom, I’m worried that my teacher might be mean.

Parent: Oh, honey, teachers are usually so nice. You have nothing to worry about. 

Once again – this is a well-intended response, but if you stop and think about it – you’ve just communicated that your child’s worry is ridiculous. In other words, you’ve invalidated their feelings. 

So simply listen, then paraphrase what you hear them saying. Normalize their concerns (it is, after all, normal to have first day jitters). After you’ve validated their feelings, then you can move into problem solving.

5. Go to the classroom orientation/meet-and-greet your teacher/open classroom time if there is one. We want our kids to feel comfortable in their class and school. After all, we all need to feel safe in order to learn. If it’s a new school (whether transitioning schools or starting kindergarten) – try and arrange a time to take a tour of the school – check out the classroom, see the library, lunchroom, auditorium, and office.

6. There are some good books to help younger children get ready for school – read some of these books with your child! Some examples are: Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for KindergartenThe Night Before First Gradeand Kindergarten Here I Come.

7. Set up a work zone in your home with your child and make them a part of the organization/clearing out of drawers/arranging pencils, paper, eraser, ruler, etc.  Be creative and have fun!

8. Talk through expectations, especially for older kids. How are they going to balance after school activities with homework, family dinner time, computer time, etc.  In order to set kids up for success, they need to know what is expected from them.    

9. If you’re going back-to-school shopping, make it a fun date with your child. Maybe surprise them by going out to eat or for a treat amidst the shopping!

 10. Be a model. As parents, we have our own anxieties about the school year as things become more hectic and there are more balls to juggle. We need to be aware of what our stressors and worries are and how we communicate them (both verbally and non-verbally) to our children. Our kids are watching us, so it behooves us to practice self-care, model coping skills, and find ways to be grateful amidst all seasons of life.