Anticipation of new schools, classrooms and teachers can all trigger anxiety, especially for young children. That’s normal to a certain extent, although it may signal something more.
“If you see more significant or persistent anxieties, it is a good idea to take a deeper look,” says Deb Anderson, deputy director of Project Harmony, a child abuse prevention group in Omaha. “Sleep or appetite changes, mood changes, school refusal or more intense emotional distress may call for some additional support from school or community mental health consultants or providers.”
General strategies parents can use for making the transitions easier include:
- Plan ahead: Start changing summer routines a week or two before the first day of school.
- Do trial runs: Take advantage of back-to-school events that bring children into the school before it starts. Schedule a tour of the new school or a time to meet the new teacher in advance.
- Make yourself available: Use your time together in the car or at bedtime to listen to your child’s concerns, questions or worries.
- Pay attention to your own behavior: Remember that worry is contagious, notes Anderson, who says, “We can either amplify or de-escalate a child’s anxiety, depending on our own internal reaction.”
If your child has concerns, it is better to take them seriously and look for solutions, since simply saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine” may prevent the child from expressing their feelings again. Solving potential problems together gives you the opportunity to coach your child on how to cope with (and interpret) both real and imagined scary situations.
Fuel Kids With a Good Breakfast
Dashing out the door makes it easy for kids to skip breakfast and end up trying to make it to lunch on an empty stomach. That’s a bad idea.
Some schools provide breakfast; if yours does not, make sure your children eat before leaving home.
“Start their day with 100% whole-grain oatmeal,” advises Kelly Springer, RD. “It’s packed with fiber to help keep blood sugar from spiking, and it maintains steady energy throughout the day.” (Avoid sugary cereals, which can cause a sugar “high” followed by a crash.) Springer suggests topping oats with nutrition boosters such as fresh fruits, granola and nut butters.
Make Sleep a Priority
It’s important to have a reasonable bedtime for growing children, says pediatric sleep consultant Kerrin Edmonds, noting, “This allows them to get the rest they need so they wake up, refreshed, happy and ready to start the day.”
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, children between the ages of three and five need 10 to 13 hours’ sleep; 6- to 12-year-olds need 9 to 12 hours; and kids 13 to 18 require 8 to 10 hours.
So plan accordingly. If your child needs to be up by 7 a.m. in order to get out the door on time, Edmonds says they should be asleep between 8 and 9 p.m. “Ideally you want a child to wake on their own in the morning without you having to drag them out of bed,” she adds. “If you have to drag them out, they are going to bed too late.”
Numerous studies link the use of technology before bedtime to less sleep, so limiting screen time before bed can help.
Set Aside Dedicated Homework Time
Setting rules for a structured time period dedicated for doing homework is a good idea. “But setting such structure likely won’t make your kids happy at first,” warns math and science tutor Jason Gibson. “Often, homework gets done somewhere between eating a sandwich and loading a new level on the Xbox.”
Parents have to put guidelines in place so that schoolwork doesn’t become the last priority of the day.
As Gibson puts it, “Kids need to know that for X hours after school the TV will be off, the iPads will be down and the homework will be done.”
Chunk Down Morning Routines
A new school schedule can be overwhelming for kids, causing unnecessary chaos and starting the day off on the wrong foot. That’s because too many steps at one time can be difficult for a child to understand, according to Kelsey Torgerson Dunn, MSW, LCSW, a child anxiety specialist in St. Louis.
Her suggestion? “Break down your request into smaller, bite-sized directions. Instead of telling your child, ‘Get ready for the bus,’ walk them through each step one at a time.”
For example, be sure kids finish breakfast, then tell them, “Brush your teeth,” then, “Make sure your backpack has your assignments,” then “Tie your shoes.” It may seem strange to make these steps feel so small and to the point, but if your child struggles with getting ready for school, or the start of the day always feels frantic, try coaching your child through every step of the way.
Help Kids Help Themselves
Letting school-age kids wake themselves up and do more for themselves allows them to grow into capable, independent and confident people, says Amy Carney, author of Parent on Purpose (Niche Pressworks).
“Let school-aged kids wake up on their own with their own alarm clock (not an electronic device)," Carney suggests. "Talk with kids and let them decide what time is best for them to wake up on school mornings and then tweak the schedule if they seem to need more time.”
Over time a child should also be responsible for deciding on a healthy breakfast to eat, which the parent may assist him or her in making. Expect the child to slowly learn all of the skills necessary for getting ready and out the door to school in the mornings.
Pre-Prep and Organize
Setting up systems to get kids starting the day out makes life easier for parent and child. Professional organizer Stacey Agin Murray offers the following tips:
- Get ready for school the night before: Pack notebooks, check tomorrow’s weather, select clothes and think about the next day’s breakfast before bedtime.
- Create the “business before pleasure” rule: Tell the kids, “All ‘morning business’ such as making the bed, brushing hair and packing a lunchbox must be done before TV, electronics, reading or playing (if there’s extra time) before heading out the door,” advises Murray.
- Start on the weekend: Have your kids pack grab-and-go snack baggies for the week; store them in a child-friendly spot that can be accessed easily in a refrigerator, cabinet or pantry. These can be used in lunchboxes or for sports and after-school activities.
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.