It’s that time of year again: Summer is winding down and families are preparing for the new school year. Whether your child is headed to kindergarten for the first time or returning for another year of preschool, the transition from summer to school is packed with emotions.

It’s perfectly natural for even the most enthusiastic young learner to feel nervous and uncertain. A new school year comes with a new classroom, a new teacher and new classmates. The classroom rules and routines are likely to change, as are the behavioral and academic expectations. It’s a lot to manage when you’re young.

Many children struggle to find the words to describe how they’re feeling when under stress, so it’s important to watch for behavioral changes. You know your child’s baseline. If your child normally falls asleep easily and sleeps through the night, but begins to struggle with bedtime or has nightmares or night wakings as the school year approaches, this is a good indicator that your child is experiencing anxiety. Other signs of stress can include the following:

  •      Sleep disturbance
  •      Changes in eating habits
  •      Mood changes
  •      Clingy behavior
  •      Increased frustration
  •      Frequent meltdowns
  •      Decreased social interactions
  •      Refusal to engage in normal daily activities

While many children will enter the first day of school without a worry, it does help to spend time focusing on the emotional needs of your child as the transition approaches. Take these steps to help your child prepare for a new school year.

Check in with your own emotions

Transitions can be just as difficult for parents as they are for kids. Children often take their cues from their parents. If, like many parents, you feel stressed and anxious about the new school year, your kids are likely to internalize feelings of worry or uncertainty. Be sure to talk openly with your spouse, a friend or family member to work through your own concerns. The more you prepare yourself for the transition, the better able you will be to prepare your child.

Help your child label feelings

“How are you feeling about going back to school?” might sound like a simple question, but it’s an important conversation starter for your child. To help kids bring their emotions to the surface, it helps to check in regularly and ask questions that open the door to talking about feelings.

Try these questions as conversation starters to address the many emotions that occur during the back to school transition:

  •      What are you excited about for this school year?
  •      Is there anything you’re worried about?
  •      How will you feel if your friends aren’t in your class?
  •      What might be frustrating at school?
  •      What do you think will be the happiest time of your day?
  •      Is there anything that might make you sad when you’re at school?

Take time to listen to and process how your child answers a question and talk it through before you move on. Many kids feel the need to put a positive spin on school to please parents and teachers, but the truth is that it’s perfectly natural to experience ups and downs on any given day. Acknowledge that trying something new can be fun, but can also be a little scary. The more we teach kids to talk about their feelings, the better able they are to manage their emotions.

Start the school routine early

Three weeks before the start of school is a good time to get back on your school schedule. Bump up bedtime by 5 to 10 minutes each night until your child returns to the school bedtime schedule. Try to plan snacks and meals to mirror the school day. Consider posting checklists at the front door to get your child in the habit of preparing for the day independently. This might include pack your backpack, put on socks and shoes, fill a water bottle, and choose a snack.

Practice ahead of time

Prioritize preparation to help reduce the “what ifs” many kids experience before the school year begins, such as shopping for supplies and labeling items. Create a space in the home for school and art supplies; preschoolers will enjoy showing you how to create fun crafts at home, and kindergarteners and first graders might have light homework throughout the week. Having a homeschool corner helps your child learn the art of organization.

Many schools offer orientation days to help students meet new friends and adjust to the school environment, but you can also arrange your own “orientation” by visiting the campus to play on the playground, arranging play dates with other incoming students and helping your child understand the daily schedule. One great way to help your child adjust to the schedule is to put the actual school schedule (many schools provide this information in registration packets or on their websites — you can also ask other parents) on a large white board and check in with it frequently throughout the day.

Create an emotions check-in board

The first few weeks of school can be great fun for little ones, but they can also be exhausting and a bit stressful. One way to make sure the whole family works through these big feelings together is to create an emotions check in board. Using a large poster board, create several pockets (construction paper and tape will do the job) to represent a variety of feelings (happy, worried, excited, proud, frustrated, sad). Decorate one popsicle stick for each family member and ask each person to place their stick in the pocket that best describes how they feel throughout the day. Do this in the morning, after school, and before bed. In using frequent check ins, you get your family in the habit of exploring emotions and talking about triggers.

School can be an exciting experience for young learners. With a little preparation and a lot of family support, your child will work through this big transition.

About Katie Hurley, LCSW

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, CA and the author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World (Tarcher/Penguin 2015).

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