This story is part one of an On the Pulse series. Read more in part two here.
Whether you’re in the “I need school to start now!” camp or the “Summer just started” camp, the fact is that the new school year is quickly approaching.
Back-to-school time can often be met with emotions ranging from excitement to nervousness or fear.
As students head back to the classroom, Dr. Kalina Babeva and Dr. Sonia Venkatraman, co-directors of the Mood and Anxiety Program at Seattle Children’s, offer ways parents and caregivers can help reduce worries in children.
Accept that all feelings are normal and valid
Many children and teens will be excited about the return to school, reconnecting with friends and teachers, engaging in sports, clubs or performance arts, and feeling a sense of normalcy due to the routine school provides. However, excitement can often be accompanied by jitters or nervousness.
Some kids will be afraid to leave the safety of their home and go back to the social or behavioral expectations that are part of a school day. They may feel anxious or worried about adjusting to a completely new schedule and routine.
Start talking with your child or teen to learn how they are feeling about going back to school. There are no right or wrong answers.
Help them name their feelings if they are having trouble, and validate that the feelings they are experiencing are understandable. It is as simple as saying, “You’re feeling nervous. It makes sense to feel nervous at the beginning of the school year” or “You are frustrated that you have to get up earlier for school. That makes sense.”
Truly hear them and try to understand their point of view, so they feel safe and validated. Know that feelings may change from day to day or as school gets underway.
It is important to validate their feelings, even if you do not feel the same or agree with the behaviors linked to these feelings. Continue to listen without judgment as they share what they are thinking.
Get physically ready for the change in routine
Start with getting back to healthy habits that promote physical and mental wellness.
Reigning in those late bedtimes a few weeks before school starts is also important. Start moving bedtime 30 minutes earlier every three to five days until your child is getting the recommended sleep for their age, based on when they will need to wake up on school days.
Avoid screens starting at least 60 minutes before bedtime.
Continue aiming to have your child move their bodies for at least 60 minutes each day. Being active reduces stress, improves sleep, and helps kids be ready to learn and cope with challenges.
Get any required immunizations, annual check-ups or sports physicals scheduled now. Stay on top of preventive health visits, and schedule those appointments before life gets even busier.
Start planning healthy meals for school days. Enlist your child in making a list of fruits and vegetables they’d like to pack in their lunch or have ready for after-school snacks.
Pick a water bottle they can pack with them to help them stay hydrated. Make a schedule for sharing the responsibilities of school-night dinners – working side by side in the kitchen will be a great time to check in as the school year gets going.
Do you need to reinstate a family calendar, a backpack location, or a homework station? Now’s a good time. Planning ahead will make the initial weeks less stressful.
Foster relationships that build resilience
Nurturing relationships helps to build resilience by making kids and teens feel safe and secure. If you’re able to, set aside extra time to be available to your child or teen in the coming weeks.
You don’t need to have an agenda for the time you spend with them. Being near provides opportunities to talk about hopes and fears, and also allows you to say and show that you love your child.
Consider visiting other loved ones in person or virtually to remind your child that they have extended family and friends that care for them.
If your school or community is offering back-to-school playground dates or events, try to attend so you can make connections and build community. The feeling of “being in this together” can help boost your child’s confidence.
Prepare for bumpy patches by knowing ways to cope
It is likely that some days will be tougher than others. Be ready for these times by planning ahead and helping your child see that they have the ability to deal with the emotions that may arise.
Consider using a coping card to help your child think about what might be hard about school, how they’ll know if they’re having challenges, and what they can do to cope and feel better. This offers a healthy way to move forward, rather than avoiding school or other triggers that are making your child anxious.
Know that the most helpful way to cope with anxious situations that are not actually dangerous is to face them. Now is a good time to practice taking small steps toward facing fears that may come up once school starts. For example, you could have your child practice ordering in the drive-through if speaking in class might cause them anxiety.
At the beginning of the school year, teachers often send home parent questionnaires to get contact information and helpful hints about their students. Take the time to offer any insight into how your child can be successful with learning and social issues that may arise at school.
Lastly, learn how the teachers and staff like to communicate, should you have questions about your child’s behavior or academic progress, and to encourage an open line of communication throughout the school year.