Coping With the Back to School Blues: 9 Tips for Students and Parents

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The beginning of the school year brings up a range of feelings for students of all ages. There is the promise of a fresh start: new notebooks, pencils and crayons, different teachers and classmates. Some kids are eager to see old friends they have not seen all summer and share their new experiences. Students may feel excited about trying a new activity, such as a drama club or a sport. They may be excited about building on the skills and passions that they discovered over the summer months.

For many students and parents, however, returning to school can also be a time of great stress. There can be anxiety about making new friends, adjusting to a new school or class, separating from family members, facing expectations of new teachers, not to mention sitting still for hours a day!

Here are some tips to help ease the transition to the new school year:

1. Adjust the Schedule

It is likely that your child will need to wake up much earlier than they had been during the summer in order to get to school on time. Many older students stay up late into the night when school is out. It might take some time to get back on track, so it is a good idea to start going to sleep at a reasonable hour a few days before school starts. Even if there is some resistance to the idea of going to bed earlier (it can be an unwanted reminder that the summer is nearly over) predictable routines can be comforting and will help prepare your child for going back to school.

2. Discuss Goals and Expectations

This is a great time to speak about your child’s goals for the school year. What does he or she want to achieve? This discussion does not need to be limited to grades. Does he or she want to make a new friend? Maybe take a risk by trying a new club (or even starting one)? Perhaps she is shy in school, but wants to set a goal of raising her hand to answer a question at least once a day. If necessary, you can help your child clarify and quantify the goal. If she has trouble articulating goals, you can make suggestions or give some choices and ask your child how that sounds. Be supportive and help your child to think about goals that are realistic. You can then review periodically with your child and assess progress, add support systems or discuss changes to the goals as needed.

3. Help Normalize Feelings

Accept that your child may be anxious during the transition and help him understand that this is a normal reaction to school for many of his classmates. Parents with the best of intentions may feel the need to say something like “oh, there is no need to worry. School will be great. Don’t be nervous.” While encouragement is great, it is also important to validate the anxiety your child has. “I see that you are feeling anxious about school and I know that must be hard. It is OK to feel anxious.  I am sure many others are feeling the same way. Let’s talk about it.” You can empathize with a memory of your first day of school or a new job, and speak about how you felt at first and eventually adjusted.

4. Be Prepared

Try to create as calm an environment as possible for the first day of school. Get everything ready the night before (clothes, supplies, lunch or lunch money, etc) so there will be no need to scramble in the morning.

5. Make Sure Accommodations Are in Place

If your child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), make sure the teacher is aware and that it is being implemented. Follow up with the school/service providers to introduce yourself and make sure that the services are being provided (counseling, speech, small group instruction, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc). If your child receives extra time on tests or takes them in a separate location, ensure early in the school year that these accommodations are set up for him.

6. Enlist School Resources

In addition to the teachers, there are often professionals to whom your child can go for a check-in during the school day. Find out who the social workers, school psychologist or guidance counselors are and how your child can seek them out if he or she needs extra support. Some children have individual or group counseling built into their schedules, while others can go on an ad-hoc basis for drop-ins.

7. Set Up Play Dates Before School Starts

Seeing a familiar face on the first day of school can go a long way to alleviate anxiety. If you are able to arrange a play date prior to school starting (or if not, in the first couple of weeks) with a classmate, this can be helpful. For older children and teens, you might want to encourage them to set up a “get-together” with a friend.

8. Send a Transitional Object

For a child who is having trouble separating, you can send along a small object he or she can keep in his backpack or pocket during the day. The object can be a photo (or anything really) that acts as a symbolic connection to you and a reminder that you will think about your child and that you will see each other at the end of the school day. You can also send a note in your child’s lunch with words of encouragement and praise.

9. Take One Day at a Time

The beginning of the school year can be overwhelming for many students and their families. Parents can remind their children that adjustments take time. Life might feel hectic and even out of control, but this is temporary. Slowly and with your support, they will get used to the workload, the social challenges, and the new teachers.

“Coping With the Back to School Blues: 9 Tips for Students and Parents” was originally published in The Huffington Post on August 4, 2016. 

Ari Fox, LCSW-R is a child, adolescent and young adult psychotherapist in New York City. He is the founder of Cope With School NYC, a full service therapy practice specializing in school-related issues (learning disabilities, ADHD, social challenges, test anxiety, low self-esteem, bullying and more).

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