In the next few weeks children and teens will be returning to school. New expectations, different teachers, harder academic work, and navigating school social dynamics is a lot of change. This is going to be a transition to support. The tips below can help. For children or teens who have been virtually learning at home or those who frequently experience anxiety, it is particularly helpful to prepare and set them up for success before they enter the classroom.
Below are a few ways to support your child or teen during the transition back to school.
Explore general thoughts and feelings about returning to school.
- Try NOT to suggest or offer emotions in your question (Are you scared? Are you worried?), but ask a general exploratory question, “How do you feel about going back to school?”. This allows the child or teen space to consider and respond.
- Reflect and validate ANY feeling expressed. (“You said you are excited and nervous about going back to school. That makes sense/I can understand that”).
- Along those lines…. Try not to minimize or dismiss what your child tells you. (“oh, there is nothing to be scared of”, “it will be great”). Not only is that invalidating to what your child said or what he or she is actually feeling; you cannot guarantee that it will be great or that there is nothing to be worried about. Different children will have different experiences, communication that allows open support and sharing is the goal.
- If your child does express worry, make a list of worries (in order of smallest to biggest worry). Help develop an action plan to address worries that are within control and talk about strategies to help tolerate the anxiety that is associated with worries outside your/your child’s control. Reflect feelings and help children accept feelings. Problem solve when appropriate.
Make a list of Pros and Cons for Returning to School.
- Encourage a balanced list; write down what a child says without judgment or talking them out of their thought.
- Also, guide acknowledging and adding potential positive and challenging aspects to the list that might be relevant and not expressed. (This can also be asked in an open-ended way that still allows a child to agree or not. “I wonder, if seeing your friends is something you are looking forward to” or “Sometimes 6th graders might have concerns about finding their way around a new building. Is that something you have thought about?).
Visit the School.
- Drive to the school. A few times. Several times if your child is particularly nervous or expressing significant worry about going back.
- You can even practice parking and getting out of the car to increase comfort.
Come up with a helpful phrase.
- Help your child/teen come up with a mantra or helpful statement or phrase before starting school. Repeat this statement often leading up to school. Demonstrate positive and balanced self-talk. Watch for catastrophizing statements to offer an alternative view or perspective.
- If there is high anxiety, use this helpful phrase when you drive to the school. Model slow, calm deep breaths and repeat the phrase with your child (I can handle this, I am nervous and brave, but I can do this. Most people are feeling nervous and excited).
Model Calm and Confidence.
- Do a self-check to make sure you are calm and demonstrating a relaxed demeanor when you are talking to your child about returning to school. Make sure if you calm and relax before any practicing driving to the school.
- This does not mean denying feelings or dismissing concerns, only increasing self-awareness of your own concerns or anxiety. Find another adult or support to talk about your own anxiety or worry if needed.
“One of the most helpful things you can do is model calm, confident behavior, particularly while helping a child get ready for school. A child usually starts school no calmer than her least-relaxed parent.” https://childmind.org/article/helping-children-with-special-needs-go-back-to-school/
Set up a morning, afternoon, and bedtime routine.
- Deciding on a reasonable schedule that allows a calmer morning, adequate sleep and time for homework and play/relaxation will help with the transition back to school.
- Predictability facilitates safety and can lower anxiety. Consistent expectations for morning routine and practicing how to prepare in the evening and choose designated place for backpack/needed materials will help in the morning.
- Creating and using written checklists together with your child/teen to promote independence that is age/developmentally appropriate will also help teach responsibility and reduce arguments and repeated reminders for morning or getting ready for bed. (Also, start earlier bedtime now to help with the adjustment if your child or teen has had late summer nights and sleeping in during the summer).
We hope that you enjoy your final weeks of summer. Give yourself and your child/teen more time, more encouragement, and less pressure in the transition back to school this year. Allow activities or extra time to let off steam after school or provide quiet to recover from the new daily school demands. All students will have to adjust. If your child is experiencing high separation anxiety, please reach out to a qualified therapist or your pediatrician. Let the school know so that the school counselor and staff can be sensitive to your child/teen’s needs and work with you to come up with a plan for drop off or if anxiety increases during the school day.
Websites for parents: