As we usher in the back-to-school season, the hot, unstructured days of summer are giving way to school corridors. This transition can bring eager anticipation of new teachers, classes, and potential friendships. It can also bring nervousness and sometimes worry for children and parents alike. Transitions of this sort can feel scary because they take us from the known and controllable to the unknown and largely uncontrollable. But there are some things you can do, as a parent or guardian, to help ease the transition back to school.
Based on their professional and personal experiences, Kathryn Boger, PhD, ABPP, and Mona Potter, MD, Harvard-trained clinicians, co-founders of InStride Health, and mothers, share tips for how parents can support their children in navigating the transition back to school.
Ask questions: Ask your children how they are feeling about going back to school. What are they excited about? Are there things that are making them feel nervous? Actively listen to what they say in response to your questions, and validate their feelings (e.g., “It’s okay to feel nervous” or “It’s understandable that you have butterflies about meeting new classmates”). It’s important to let children know you hear them before jumping into any kind of problem-solving.
Plan ahead: Once children feel heard and understood, you can ask if they’d like help planning ahead for how they will manage the things that are causing them jitters. Help them think through what specifically is causing them to feel nervous and brainstorm different ways they could respond in the moment (including strategies and skills they could use). Then, ask them to pick one of the options and plan for how they will try it out when the time comes.
Get back into sleep routines: Start easing back into more structured sleep routines before the school year starts. Gradually adjust your child’s wake-up time by setting the alarm for progressively earlier times for a week or two. This approach prevents the shock of suddenly needing to wake up early once school begins. Just as a morning routine is important, so is a bedtime routine. Gradually work on winding down earlier in the evening to ensure your child is getting enough rest. Limit screen time before bed, engage in calming activities like reading or listening to soothing music, and create a comfortable sleep environment.
Empower your child: Help your children identify and take control of their school experience. By involving them in decisions and allowing them to exercise autonomy, you encourage a sense of responsibility and promote self-esteem and adaptability. For example, your children could help choose what to pack for their lunches (or, better yet, pack their own lunches), what to wear on the first day, and how early they want to arrive at school.
Lead by example: Kids often take cues from their parents, so try and project confidence and calm, even if you, as a parent, are experiencing your own apprehension. Being a parent doesn’t mean you can’t show your feelings to your children. Calmly acknowledging your own emotions and modeling how you are managing them teaches children that it’s okay to experience their feelings and that they can develop tools to cope and adapt. In the weeks before school starts, you could purposefully acknowledge when you feel nervous or fearful and narrate aloud how you manage those feelings. For example, you might say, “I’m feeling a little nervous about my work presentation today. I went on a run this morning because I know that helps to calm my body, and I am reminding myself that I prepared a lot for this and am ready. I might make mistakes, but it will still be okay.”
For many kids, back-to-school jitters dissipate with support, encouragement, and time. It helps to be patient and kind to yourself as you watch your child weather the ups and downs of those first few weeks. If you notice your child’s school-related anxiety is becoming increasingly intense and leading to avoidant behaviors, such as tardiness or missed days of school, it’s important to take action. Try to get a better understanding of what is driving the avoidant behavior in school and at home. Enlist your child’s school and pediatrician for support. There are also therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), that target the anxiety underneath the avoidance. Above all, know that you are not alone. School-avoidant behavior has been on the rise and is treatable once you have the right plan and supports in place.
By: InStride Health
About InStride Health: Co-founded by the clinicians who co-developed the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program (MAMP) at McLean Hospital, the nationally recognized program for children and adolescents with moderate to severe anxiety and OCD, InStride Health offers technology-enhanced mental health treatment. Through this innovative care model, InStride is leading the way by providing much-needed, insurance-based access to treatment that works for kids, teens, and young adults with moderate to severe anxiety and OCD. Driven by the belief that children and families living with mental health struggles deserve better access and outcomes, InStride is more than a continuum of care—it’s a pathway to a healthier life and hope for a more promising future.
Photo by CDC: https://www.pexels.com/photo/boy-in-green-shirt-3992949/
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