With fall around the corner, families are preparing for the new school year. Whether you have a child headed to preschool or kindergarten, or a tween or teen making the jump to middle or high school, Dr. Cora Collette Breuner, pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at Seattle Children’s, provides the following tips to help milestone transitions go well for the whole family.

“Parents set the tone for how well the transition to a new school goes,” said Breuner. “When parents are worried about the transition and put too much focus on it, children take notice of the anxiety and feel that they should be worried, too. The best approach is to talk about the transition as a normal next step, prepare for the year and take time to ask about what’s exciting and what’s concerning to your child.”

While this general advice goes for all milestone transitions as well as every school year in between, Breuner offered age-specific tips, based on typical developmental issues that accompany each milestone.

The early years, starting preschool

Whether your child is used to spending most of their week at home or is coming from a daycare environment, starting preschool is a big change. Learning a new routine will take some time, but most kids settle in after a few weeks.

Breuner offered these tips for preparing for preschool:

  • Play “school” with your child, letting them decide whether to be a student, a teacher or the class pet. You may pick up on what they’re excited and worried about through make-believe play.
  • Read books about preschool with your child.
  • Practice skills, like putting on shoes, putting belongings away and hanging a coat on a hook.
  • Make a few short visits to the preschool, keeping the focus on fun and exploring play areas.
  • Think about a good-bye routine that you can introduce to your child to help with making drop-offs go smoothly. Some parents use a quick hug, a kiss on the forehead or a fancy handshake.
  • Ask the teachers how they’ll communicate with you so that you can hear how your child is handling the change.
  • Delay making other big changes that affect your child at home before and during the transition to preschool. For example, hold off on rearranging your child’s bedroom or getting a new pet.
  • Download and complete health forms before your first drop off. Double check that your child’s primary care provider and emergency contact phone numbers are correct.
  • Make sure all caregivers and emergency contacts have the school’s address.

Heading to kindergarten, school with big kids

For many families, kindergarten feels like the official start of their child’s education. Breuner offered the following advice for families with new kindergartners:

  • Encourage curiosity and have patience as you answer endless questions from your child. Curiosity is a quality that teachers love.
  • Read books about school with your child.
  • Have your child practice listening by giving two-part instructions like, “Please wash your hands then put napkins on the table for dinner.”
  • Practice using shared restrooms in places like restaurants, and make sure your child has toileting skills, including proper hand washing.
  • Attend “kindergarten play dates” and other welcome functions offered by your child’s school.
  • Visit the playground a few times before the year begins.
  • Model saying “hello” to other families when you’re on the school grounds. This shows your child how to take the first step in making a friend.
  • Let your child help pick out a backpack and other supplies they’ll need.
  • Download and complete health forms before your first drop off. Double check that your child’s primary care provider and emergency contact phone numbers are correct.
  • Make sure all caregivers and emergency contacts have the school’s address.

Starting middle school, back at the bottom of the heap

Ask most incoming middle schoolers what they’re most worried about, and you’ll likely hear answers about finding their way around, getting their locker open, dealing with older kids and having mean teachers. Address these concerns with preparation:

  • Avoid telling tales of your worst middle school moments, and discourage friends and family from sharing theirs as well.
  • Transition back to a school night bedtime by moving bedtime 30 minutes earlier every three days until your child is getting 9 to 11 hours of sleep each night.
  • Attend orientation. Many middle schoolers use orientation as an opportunity for social time, so try to have your child stay after for a few minutes to learn the layout of the school without distractions.
  • If you miss orientation, call the school to see if there’s a time you and your child can come walk the halls and meet a few staff members.
  • Learn if the school has a cell phone policy, and discuss it with your child if they have a phone.
  • Have your child practice opening a combination lock.
  • If your child will be walking or using a public bus to get to school, decide on the safest route and practice the commute.
  • Explore extracurricular activities offered through school and encourage your child to start thinking about what they’d like to try. Friendships often change in middle school, and activities offer a great way to meet others, including older kids.
  • Help your child think of a system for staying organized and tracking assignments.
  • Include your child in shopping for supplies and clothes. Most kids this age have opinions about what they want to wear, carry and use.
  • If your school has a health center, complete the form that allows your child to use their services.
  • Make sure your child’s immunizations are up to date, including the HPV vaccine.

Back to rookie year, starting high school

With middle school under their belt, many teens are ready for the additional independence that high school brings, but there are still worries about things like wayfinding and upperclassmen, as well as increasing pressure to perform well. Here is Breuner’s advice for allaying some of that worry:

  • Seek out an upperclassman that your teen would be comfortable talking with.
  • Transition back to a school night bedtime by moving bedtime 30 minutes earlier every three days until your teen is getting 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night.
  • Explore the high school’s website with your teen and get familiar with the many resources available.
  • Subscribe to the school newsletter or text messaging system, if available.
  • Sign up for the school’s online portal to be able to check on your teen’s assignments, grades and attendance.
  • Attend orientations, and if the school allows it, drop in for a self-guided tour to practice wayfinding.
  • Learn if the school has a cell phone policy, and discuss it with your child if they have a phone.
  • Encourage your teen to learn about being involved in clubs, arts, sports, etc. Staying involved will be a key to success.
  • Remind your teen that it’s OK to ask for help, whether with schoolwork, skills or mental health. Name some of the resources they may have at school, like their guidance counselor and tutors. If the school has a health center, complete the form that allows your teen to use their services.
  • Make sure your teen’s immunizations are up to date, including the HPV vaccine.
  • Brainstorm healthy ways your student can cope with stress.
  • Avoid talking about college and careers during this transition. There will be time for that later.
  • Have a “what if” discussion about what to do if your teen is asked to experiment with alcohol, cigarettes and other illegal substances.

Make time to check in

Stay in touch with your child’s feelings during this transition. Show interest, listen and encourage them to do their best.

Breuner offered one last piece of advice for parents.

“If possible, try to schedule time to be more available to your child as the school year begins,” she said. “The first week or so is exciting and exhausting, and family meals and the presence of a parent will comfort your child or teen as they transition to a new routine.”

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