How to help your child get into the back-to-school groove

school anxiety squareSummer vacation is coming to an end and the new school year is fast approaching. Families have a lot on their plates already and with the back-to-school rush, their lives get even more hectic.

Families are likely to find their stress levels increasing as they transition from a more relaxed pace to earlier sleep schedules, purchasing school supplies and books, hunting for the best clothing deals, contending with heavier traffic commutes and dealing with back-to-school blues. But parents and children can work together to not only survive back-to-school stresses, but learn to thrive in the new school year.

What are common back-to-school worries for families?

It’s common for parents to worry about their children starting kindergarten, entering a new school district, or advancing to a higher grade level for middle or high school. Parents tell me that they cross their fingers, hoping for a good fit between the new teacher and their child. Likewise, children are often anxious about making new friends or nervous about facing a possibly rigorous academic schedule.

Sometimes it’s the fear of the unknown that is stressful for family members. Even college students can be overwhelmed as they experience a mixture of excitement about their new adventure and possible trepidation about whether they will handle the pressures well.

Are there back-to-school tips that can help parents?

Build resilience, “mental and emotional muscle.”  This is an ideal opportunity to work with your children on building resilience and showing them a way to cope positively with upcoming changes.

One of the most important lessons parents can teach their children is to develop a positive attitude and mindset so they can tackle school-related challenges. When parents help children learn skills to adjust to life’s transitions, they are teaching them ways to develop “mental and emotional muscle,” much like exercise develops physical muscles. Helping children develop resilience is a way of educating children about how to build skills for bouncing back when they are stressed and adapting to changes in their lives.

Connect and talk. Ask your children about their fears and worries about going back to school so that they’re not carrying the burden of their thoughts alone. Listen and acknowledge the “normality” of their feelings and empathize with them. And tell them that being nervous and dealing with different situations is not necessarily a bad thing.

Help children develop their “coping tool chest.” Teach your children ways to face their fears and develop strategies that work best for them. In doing so, children are honing skills to add to their “coping tool chest” that they can use in the future. As an example, parents can ask their children what helped them most the previous school grade and remind them that many of those positives could be transferred into their new experience. Have them think about what they can look forward to such as, “I get to see my friends again” or “We get to go on a Big Island trip this year.” Remind your child of a time in the past when they were successful in conquering their fears.

What else can parents do to smooth the transition?

Develop a school routine. Parents can help children ease back into an earlier sleep cycle before the first week of school. That will lessen the shock of waking up earlier in the morning. Children can prepare and practice their new school routine by organizing things at home, such as their school supplies, lunch box, bus money, and clothing for the first day or week.

Take a tour of the new school. If your child will be attending a new school, plan a “field trip” to visit the campus before the first day of school. Children can spend some time at the playground and locate classrooms, the cafeteria, and P.E. building.

Encourage children to take an active role. For example, have kids draw their own personalized map of important places at their school, which they can tuck into their backpacks. Encourage your children to personalize their folders, organization books, and school tote bags.

Choose a calming mantra. Kids can choose their own personalized mantra to help them tackle their anxieties. Examples include “I think I can, I think I can” or “imua.” These personal mantras can help generate positive self-talk and facilitate inner calm.

Suggest making personal, academic and social goals.  Have your child formulate and articulate their personal, academic and social goals for the year. Praise your children for thinking proactively.

Connect with a school buddy. Encourage your child to contact a child who will also be attending the same school. When kids know that they have a friend and ally, it can do wonders in easing their anxieties about overcoming school jitters.

June W. J. Ching, Ph.D., ABPP is a Board Certified clinical psychologist who practices in Honolulu. She specializes in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, adults, couples and families. She is past-president of the Hawaii Psychological Association and former chief psychologist at Kapiolani Medical Center for women and children. Ching received her master’s degree from Harvard University and her doctoral degree from Northwestern University. She holds a clinical affiliate faculty appointment at the University of Hawaii’s Clinical Studies Program.


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