There he was, our son, as sweet as a cinnamon bun, marching confidently into a new chapter of his life: his first day of preschool. We felt like celebrating—or at least doling out a healthy round of fist bumps watching him move into “big boy” status last fall. Frankly, we were also relieved. Despite a small delay involving a slightly burnt piece of toast, we made it out of the house easily. No protests. No crying. No drama.
As we move toward kindergarten and grade school, I can only hope that heading back to school—after a summer of sun and fun—will always be so effortless. However, for many children, the start of the new school year means the end of fun and free time. If most kids had it their way, summer would last forever. But we already know that’s never going to happen, so instead, help them see that there’s a way to return to school buses, backpacks and books with a genuine smile—not a grimace—on their faces. Here are some helpful tips for beating the back-to-school blues.
Give them the 4-1-1.
If your child is starting at a new school—moving to kindergarten from day care or middle school from elementary—they may feel anxious about all the newness. It’s important to give them as much information as possible in advance, says Dr. Rochelle Harris, a psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri. For example:
- “If you can, visit the school one week before, to help them learn the layout of the building,” she says.
- Get your kid’s class schedule ahead of time and walk through it with them. “You can decrease a lot of uncertainty and help them get familiar with all of the new components they’re facing.”
- Practice opening their lockers, especially if it’s a combination lock. “It can be a panicky thing for kids if their locker sticks and they can’t open it,” Dr. Harris says.
- Meet the teacher. “Make sure the teacher knows that your child is new to the school or the neighborhood,” she says. “Writing a letter to the teacher with basic tips and easy requests is a big help. “For instance, let the teacher know that you just moved there or that your child has never been to a school this size.”
Talk through anxieties.
Kids might feel ambivalent or anxious about returning to school for a number reasons. “Whatever the issue, talk about it, but don’t dwell on it,” says Dr. Harris. Also, listen closely to the content, she says. Kids tend to globalize things: I never have fun. School is always boring. “It’s that ‘all or nothing’ thinking that can lead children to feel depressed,” Dr. Harris says. Get them refocused, and challenge that negativity. Remind them about the fun that awaits them at school and on the weekends too. “The key is to normalize it for them and keep a positive spin: ‘Oh, yeah, I hear you, but also remember how much fun you had with your classmates last year. I’m sure this time will be like that.'”
Create a plan of action.
If your child has a legitimate issue that’s leaving them unenthusiastic about returning to school—maybe they struggled with a subject or were bullied—Dr. Harris strongly recommends creating a plan of action and explaining it to your child. “If your kid had trouble in math last year, tell him/her that you are going to start the process of getting them more support, and then follow through,” she says. Or in a bullying situation, let your child know that you will speak to the school and involve the necessary parties to ensure that it’s being looked into and handled.
Get reacquainted with old friends.
With summer camps and family vacations, sometimes your kids don’t see their school friends until that first day back. Dr. Harris recommends reconnecting with buddies a week or so beforehand to get reacquainted. Play dates or, for older children, an easy end-of-summer BBQ in the backyard are great ways to do this. “Suggest that your child call up a friend and coordinate a preschool meetup. Maybe they can arrange to walk into school at the same time on the first day,” she says. A phone call to a friend three or four days ahead can help calm your child’s concerns about going back to school.
Make a special purchase.
Sometimes getting your child excited about the new school year can be as simple as letting them pick out a special item when you’re doing back-to-school shopping. “If the latest backpack helps them feel included, and it works with your budget, just buy it,” Dr. Harris says. “It could make a world of difference.”
Nicole Blades is an author and journalist living in Connecticut. Her parenting blog, Ms. Mary Mack, hopes to bring compassion and common sense back to motherhood.