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Winifred Lender: Tips for Back-to-School Success, for Your Child and for You

August is here, and the start of school is imminent. We often think about the beginning of the school year as a “fresh start,” a “clean beginning,” or a time to learn new things.  It holds the promise of endless possibility, growth and exploration.

The beginning of the academic year signals a time to renew friendships, see teachers from the past and learn from new teachers. And yet, the start of school can also lead to anxiety as students need to develop new routines and adopt to new teachers and expectations.

While the start of school is full of excitement and new opportunities, it also entails separation from parents, social pressure, more demands on time, academic evaluation and a change in sleeping schedule.

The new school year also brings many unknowns (i.e., who will my teacher be, will the class be hard) and potential interaction with unfamiliar people (new teachers, new peers).

In addition, school often requires logistical changes in the family schedule that can lead to stress. All these factors can conspire to make the back-to-school period a time that can be anxiety provoking.

While some anxiety about a new situation is actually beneficial (it helps to motivate us to perform and try hard), too much can be counterproductive.

Butterflies in the stomach on the first day of school or some general worries before school starts fall along the continuum of normal. Often times, the anticipatory anxiety concerns prior to the start of school subside after the first couple of days, when the unknown becomes familiar.

As students know what to expect and what is expected of them, they gain a sense of control and sense of routine, both of which are comforting. Typically, within two weeks of starting school, most students feel settled and the anxiety dissipates.

For a small proportion of students, the back-to-school worry can persist. The worry can transform into anxiety and psychosomatic complaints may emerge, such as headaches, stomachaches, and difficulty falling asleep and remaining asleep. It is the persistence and severity of the anxiety that may signal cause for concern. It is estimated that 10 percent to 15 percent of children and teenagers have some form of an anxiety disorder, many of which relate to academic performance and peer relations.

Preparing for a positive start for the school year entails helping a child minimize any anxiety about the back-to-school process through normalizing, preparation, modeling and validation.

Normalizing

Normalizing the fact that many children feel anxious and even down about the start of school is important. While children and teens may not readily share these feelings with their peers, it is important they know these feelings are normal. Not everyone is excited to return to school. While normalizing these feelings, it is important to let your child know that these feelings typically subside once the newness of school wears off and the school schedule becomes routine.

Preparation

Preparing in advance for the start of school by developing a bedtime and wake-up time that will allow your child to make the transition easily back to school is very important. Sleep is essential for academic and social success, and is one of the best ways to help your child manage anxiety and depressed feelings.

Preparing can also involve ensuring your child knows he or she is returning to school and has a plan to get any needed reading or work done prior to school starting. Likewise, organizing a plan do any school errands (i.e., clothes shopping, school supplies) well in advance of school starting, can help to minimize the anxiety of rushing around at the last minute is helpful.

For some children, school preparation can also involve visiting the school, spending time on the playground, meeting new teachers and reviewing the new school schedule. Organizing play dates with friends or peers who will be in your child’s class can be helpful, too. Children will benefit from these activities that make the new and unknown more familiar. In addition, preparing for a transition to school that gradually phases in after-school activities can ease the transition.

Preparation for school also involves minimizing decisions a child will need to make the morning before school starts as this can lead to anxiety. Early in the afternoon the day prior to school, ensure that the backpack is all ready and near the door, clothes for school are laid out and a breakfast option is selected.

Organizing and practicing the morning routine to ensure your child will have enough time to eat a good breakfast and feel prepared to leave the house is also essential. Children who are hungry, rushed or feel as though they are not prepared for school may experience more anxiety.

Modeling

Modeling is another important part of supporting your child’s transition to a new school year. As a parent, you can model a calm, organized approach to the new school year and to new activities in general. Verbalize to your child how you prepare for new events and focus on the positive elements of new experiences. Work on minimizing your own stress related to the change of schedule so you can demonstrate a calm approach to the transition.

Validation

Validation is another important feature of easing your child’s transition back to school. Negating a child’s anxiety and fears about school can cause more anxiety, but validating that your child’s anxiety is real and that many children experience anxiety related to school is helpful.

You should listen to your child’s concerns and help him or her problem solve around activities that could target the fears. Remind your child of instances when he or she was anxious yet overcame the anxiety. Reminding your child that anxiety is a normal reaction to stress, and that often the best way to combat anxiety is to engage in the activity that creates the anxiety can also be helpful.

While the back-to-school process can cause anxiety for many children, a successful transition to a new school year is empowering. The ability to enter a new situation, perform well and find some pleasure in something that might have initially been anxiety-producing is a growth-enhancing experience.

Wishing you and your child a positive back-to-school experience!

» Normalize the fact that many children feel anxious and even a little down about the start of school.

» Make the transition to a school sleep schedule that allows for sufficient sleep (optimally, 11 to 13 hours for elementary school children and 8½ to 9¼ hours for middle and high school tweens and teens). Move bedtime earlier by 10 to 15 minutes each night until you arrive at the time that allows for enough sleep prior to the school wake-up time.

» Schedule quiet digital-free time 45 minutes before bed to encourage a child to relax in order to facilitate better sleep.

» Consider visiting the school, playground and teachers prior to the start of school.

» Review the new school schedule.

» Organize play dates with school friends.

» Take care of all school-related errands (clothes shopping, school supplies) as soon as possible to alleviate last-minute rushing around that could increase anxiety.

» Try a trial run the day before school starts where the family wakes up and gets ready according to the school start time and then engages in some fun activity.

» Organize the backpack, school outfit and select a breakfast option the afternoon before the first day of school.

» Consider gradually phasing in after-school activities when school starts to allow your child to make the transition to school prior to adding on the additional activities.

» Model calmness and a positive view of new experiences. Try not to show any anxiety you may feel.

» Validate your child’s anxiety as a normal part of entering a new experience and remind her of how they overcome anxiety before.

» If your child is having significant difficulty sleeping due to anxiety about school, or appears to be persistently worried or depressed about school in a way that affects his or her happiness, consider seeking professional help.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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