Summer break is ending, and it’s time to start thinking about back-to-school. Back to school means lots of changes. There are new teachers, new friends, new schedules, new clothes, new school supplies, new activities, and perhaps a whole new environment. This is also a big transition time for your kids. They are likely going from a relaxed summer day to having an earlier bedtime and getting out the door by a specific time.
It is normal for kids and parents to feel anxious about all the changes that returning to school means. Making the transition is stressful for everyone. Many parents must adjust their schedules to be available to put the kids on the school bus and get them off the bus at the end of the day. There are homework and extracurricular activities that often happen after school. This makes for long exhausting days for parents and kids.
Whatever age your child is, there are several things you can do to help them get ready to go back to school and make the first days of school less stressful. I’ve put together some ideas to help you and your kids make that transition easier.
What does neuroscience tell us about why transitions back to school may be hard?
Transitions involve change. Neuroscience tells us change is so tricky because change requires our brain to either use a different pathway or build a new pathway for doing something different or new. When our child is used to a routine, the neuropathway for that routine feels easy and comfortable. Every time they repeat the routine, the pathway in the brain for the routine is strengthened.
Then the summer ends, and the routine changes. The new routine means the brain must either pull out and dust off the school routine pathway from the year before or create a new pathway if this is the first time the child is going to school. Either way, they build circuits for new tasks, focus, follow instructions, meet new people, and make new friends. Many of these tasks require using a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, activated when your child must do complex tasks like paying attention to the teacher, remembering to bring homework home, and learning other new skills. In grade school-age children, the prefrontal cortex is still under construction, making building the back-to-school routine pathway even more challenging—no wonder your child may feel uneasy or anxious about returning to school.
What do I do if my child has School Anxiety?
First, check in with yourself and see if you are feeling anxious. An anxious parent may equal an anxious child. It is normal for a parent to feel anxious about their child going to school. Especially if this is their child’s first year in school, your child may be at least as anxious as the most anxious parent. Children are like sponges; they absorb your energy, including anxious energy, and adopt their parents’ behaviors. Their mirror neurons will pick up your anxious facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, and mannerisms and tell your child he should also be anxious. However, if you model calm, confident behavior, especially when helping him get ready for school, he will absorb your calmness and confidence.
Ten things you can do to ease your child feel less anxious on the first day of school.
Separation anxiety in children is normal. It serves a beneficial purpose for kids from an evolutionary perspective. Separation anxiety kept kids close to their caregivers and the people who would protect them from the dangers of their prehistoric world. Kids’ brains are hard-wired to stay close to their parents and feel anxious and afraid when they are distant from a parent or caregiver.
Parents are also hard-wired to feel anxious when their young children aren’t close by or within their sight. This may be why the first day of school is so chaotic, with kids clinging to their parent’s arms and legs, wailing in distress, and parents trying to console their little ones while fighting back their tears.
1. Do some practice runs together:
Practice runs will help your child build the pathways for tolerating the feelings that will come up for both of you when it is time to say goodbye on the first day of school. What are practice runs? Visit the school environment a week or two before the school season. Rehearse the drop-off with your child and spend some time together on the playground. If the school is open, practice walking your child to their classroom and have them practice walking into the class while you wait outside or down the hall.
2. Meet the teacher and visit the classroom:
If the school has an open house, meet your child’s teacher before the start of school. Even if there isn’t an open house, arrange a time to go with your child and do person meetings with their new teacher. Meeting their teacher is especially helpful if your child is going to school for the first time. Your child will become familiar with the building and where things are in the classroom. “It looks like the bathroom is at the end of the hall, and oh, look, the sinks in the classroom are your size. The block area has the same blocks that you have at home. Take some classroom pictures so you can look at them together later. Take a picture of your child’s teacher with their permission. Between the open house visit and the start of school, including the teacher in your discussions about returning to school. That way, by the time your child goes back to school, the teacher and their classroom will be familiar to them. Meeting the teacher and seeing the school and classroom may help your anxiety.
3. Arrange a play date:
Having a familiar friendly face can make all the difference on that first day. Find out if your child’s friends are in the same class and arrange a play date to reconnect before school starts. Research has shown that having a familiar friend during the transition back to school or to school for the first time can help your child adjust academically and emotionally.
4. Run a School Shopping Season:
Most teachers send out a list of supplies, school items, and school guides your child will need for the school year. It is helpful to the teacher if you adhere to their list. If you don’t get a list check with your child’s teacher. Then make school purchases with your child. In addition to the basic supplies, let your child pick out a few splurge items like a favorite-colored notebook or cool box to keep their crayons in and their favorite character lunchbox. Go shopping together for new school clothes for your child to wear on the first day of school. Let your child pick out what they want to wear the first day. Of course, if your child’s school has a uniform dress code, you may want to skip the clothes shopping with her. Get your child excited about some academy projects or activities by explaining how your child might use the new supplies at school. Let him practice using supplies he may not have used before, like a ruler or colored pencils. Spend some quality time with them.
5. Choose the right backpack:
A tiny backpack might be super adorable, but it won’t work if it is too small to hold their lunch boxes or books. Your child’s backpack should be sturdy, made of lightweight fabric, and have wide padded straps. A backpack that is too heavy or not worn properly may cause neck pain, headaches, and back muscle strain.
6. Adjust bedtime and wake-up time:
Early to bed and early to rise won’t happen if you start the night before the first day of school. Slowly adjust your child’s bedtime and wake-up time by 15 minutes every day until they go to bed and wake up at the right time for the first day of school. If they need to wake up for school at 7 am and are currently waking up at 10 am. Put them to bed 15 minutes earlier and wake them up fifteen minutes earlier each day. It will take about two weeks to adjust their schedule, so they wake up at 7 am.
7. Restart their evening routines:
Bring back the school time bedtime routine. If this is their first time going to school, start a get ready to go back-to-school nighttime routine. Start the routine two to four weeks before the start of school. The routine should include turning off all screens one to two hours before bedtime. Screens inhibit the production of melatonin, the natural sleep hormone. There are many benefits to ensuring your child gets the sleep they need. It’s hard enough for a kid to get out of bed on a school day, but if they go to bed at 10 pm, not only will it be nearly impossible to get their butt out of bed, but it will be hard for them to regulate their emotions and concentrate on their studies at school.
8. Talk about back-to-school worries:
Let your child know that feeling nervous or worried about returning to school is natural. Let them express their worries and practice some deep breaths with them to teach them how to calm their nerves when they feel anxious. Teach them to deep breathe using my Hot Cocoa Breath method. Read and make books about school. The books will often spark some great discussions. Share some stories about when you were young and nervous about starting or returning to school. Remind your kids, two things that can be true. Starting school can be tricky, and it won’t be long before it becomes fun and easy (comfort level).
9. Make a worry stone together:
Find a small smooth stone that will easily fit in the palm of your child’s hand or held between their thumb and forefinger. Paint a heart in their favorite color on one side of the stone and a message on the other side. “I love U,” “Kisses,” “Kisses and a Hug,” etc. Your child can carry the stone in their pocket and rub it between their thumb and pointer finger or give it a squeeze when they are feeling worried, upset, anxious, or stressed. The stone may help your child not feel so alone when they miss their Mom or Dad. Learn more about how to make a worry stone.
10. Celebrate the Start of School:
Celebrating the start of school is a challenging situation. Celebrate it with a countdown calendar or countdown chain made of paper links. Make tearing off a link in the chain part of the back-to-school nighttime routine. On the first day of school, celebrate with a visit from the First Day of School Fairy by having her deliver a note of encouragement and a few school supplies.
Remind yourself that you’ve got this. In these times of transition, You might forget something in the chaos of the first day of school. You might lose your cool when your child decides they don’t want to wear the outfit they picked out for the first day or decide to meltdown as you are trying to get everyone out the door on time. Your child might cling to you and wail, “don’t leave me,” after you drop them off at school. None of these things make you a bad parent; you’ve got this.
What to do at Drop-off
You have done all the prep work. You went to school and met your child’s teacher. Your child has her worry stone in her pocket. You’ve done the practice runs, and now it’s the big moment of dropping them off on the first day of school. Now what?
If you are driving them to school on the first day. (this script will also work for putting them on the bus). When dropping them off, walk with them as far as possible, depending on the school’s drop-off rules, when it is time to leave them. Give them one hug, one kiss, and say, “see you later,” or some version of that. “Mommy will be right here after school to pick you up. I love you.” Then turn around and leave. Don’t tell a silly story, give five hugs, do a goodbye dance, and then give three kisses. Keep the routine short and leave. Take some hot cocoa breaths and let the tears flow once your child is out of sight.
When you pick them up at the end of their school day. Give them a hug and say, “mommy came back, just like I said I would.”