STEP 1. Learn about the new school year details.
Look for emails from your child’s school, go to the school website or call for information about the new year. Is the first day a full day or half day? What are the hours of the school day? Are masks required for students and teachers? Have there been any lunch or recess changes? What are the names of the new teachers? Are there any registration or other school fees due? What are the available clubs or groups?
STEP 2. Start talking about starting the new school year.
Parents can share what they know about the new school year with their students. Ask if they haveany questions and answer what is known. Parents can also do a daily count down to the first day.
Also, check-in with children and teens to ask about what they think and feel regarding returning to school. If parents don’t specifically ask, they may not know how their kids really feel.Students may have a range of emotions and reactions about returning to school. Some may be more excited than others, and some may have a mix of feelings, such as worry, excitement, fear, nervousness, anticipation, and reluctance.
Ask students if they have any goals for the new year. Do they want to join any new clubs, do anything differently, or work on improving certain things (such as relations with peers, class participation, grades, homework, or studying for tests)?
For students nervous about transitioning to new schools (from pre-school to high school), visiting the school, even if it is only driving up to the building, can help.
STEP 3. Be aware that new school year anxiety occurs for many students.
Anxiety is common in many children and teens.Parents should be sensitive to the new changes, stresses and challenges that often emerge at the start of the school year. Students often experience stress during these adjustments. They may be more irritable or tired after starting school and may need more understanding, patience, and support from parents and school staff. Change fatigue (which is the stress and burnout over time from repeated changes) impacts everyone, and can accumulate and intensify over time. Specifically ask your children about if they have any worries or nervousness about returning to school and then try to address these.
Anxiety can occur on a spectrum of very mild and brief to moderate and fluctuating to severe and pervasive. For parents who have anxiety concerns about their children and teens, consider reaching out to behavioral health providers for an evaluation. Anxiety that persists, causes symptoms, and interferes with regular life activities can be suggestive of an anxiety disorder and should be evaluated.
STEP 4. Start working on back-to-school routines.
Routines are a series of specific expectations. Predictability helps prevent and reduce anxiety in children. Routines and schedules are critical in establishing stability and consistency each school day, and can promote success for students. The virtual learning from Covid changed normal school and social routines, and this generated greater amounts of stress and anxiety for many. Back to school is a great time to review what was done last year and make changes if necessary. This is a window for a fresh start.The clearer and more explicit the expectations, the better structure. Also, sometimes it can be helpful to ask friends and families what routines have they found effective.
Parents can work on creating specific and written home routinesfor each of their preschool to high school students. What are the expectations for school mornings? What time do students need to wake up each school day?By what time should they have finished their breakfast, bathroom tasks, dressing and be walking out the door? These tasks and times can be written down and posted in a very visual place, like the fridge or kitchen wall. Writing these down can make them easier to remember and build into daily life.
STEP 5. Establish after-school routines.
What are the written homework, studying for quizzes and tests and chores expectations? Some families use a no electronics rule before homework, studying and chores are completed after school.
STEP 6. Use consequences to manage compliance with routines.
Consequences can be very helpful in helping families to consistently adhere to routines. Parents can consider using encouragement, praise, and rewards for motivating children and teens to accomplish the desired behaviors listed on a routine. Conversely, for a lack of compliance or unwanted behaviors, a loss of privileges can be used. There are many books and articles on behavioral management training for parents. For families with students who have more complex or challenging conditions, behavioral health professionals and qualified behavioral coaches can be approached for assistance.
STEP 7. Create a healthy sleep schedule.
One of the biggest back-to-school challenges for many families is maintaining healthier sleep schedules. During summers, many children and teens cycle going to bedlater and waking later. This can cause quite a problem when returning to school. Creating a specific and regular bedtime and wake time can be transformational, even for older teens. Many older children and teens do not receive adequate amounts of sleep, and this can cause a range of emotional, behavioral and academic problems. Parents can determine what are the needed bedtime and wake times, discuss these with children and teens to get their buy-in, and write them down as expectations.While teens may not agree with these, parents should continue to discuss this essential topic over time. The importance of sufficient sleep and healthy sleep hygiene cannot be overstated for positive well-being and academic success.
As a guideline, children ages 3 to 5 should consistently obtain 10 to 13 hours of sleep per 24 hours (including naps), children ages 6 to 12 should obtain 9 to12 hours of sleep, and adolescents consistently require 8 to 10 hours of sleep. The ranges of hours are guidelines, and individual needs may vary. To establish the time to go to sleep, determine when students should wake up and then using the guide above work backwards to establish the time for lights out and head on the pillow sleep time.
Parents can start gradually focusing on achieving earlier bedtimes and wake times one or more weeks before school starts to minimize the shock of sleep schedule changes.
STEP 8. Support students with the back to school transition and school anxiety by making home fun and safe.
Positive relationships and activities at home can be foundations to reduce uncertainties and help kids recharge their batteries. This can also help balance the sometimes unfun use of routines and consequences. Family movies, outdoor walks or sports, and game nights can be great connecting activities. Scheduled meals together can be another beneficial routine, such as family breakfasts or dinners on certain days.
STEP 9. Address additional new year needs.
Back to school shopping for school supplies and clothes can be a helpful yearly routine.Children should attend these excursions to assist them to accept the reality of impending school. Also consider cleaning and organizing closets, dresser drawers, and designated homework/study areas. Parents can also review what otheritems are needed, such as labelled accordion folders or new book bags.
STEP 10. Provide more support and structure for students with ADHD, neurodevelopmental, and/or other special needs conditions.
Children and teens with ADHD and other conditions can be more vulnerable, sensitive, and reactive to changes, transitions and stresses. Starting a new school year often presents many challenges. The beginning of the school year is a good time for parents to review or re-review websites and books on helpful parenting approaches.
If the prior year was difficult, parents can consider visiting behavioral health professionals to discuss ways to have a better school year. Medications may also need to be reviewed.
Finally, each new school year, parents can reach out to new teachers and school staff to discuss their student’s needs, learning and/or in-school behavioral challenges. If the student has a 504 plan or Individual Education Program (IEP), reaching out can be particularly important to review these with the new staff.