- Back to school can be a stressful and anxious time for families.
- This year may prove to be more challenging than years past.
- A few check-ins and planning ahead can help ease back-to-school stressors and anxieties.
Back-to-school time is always bittersweet as families say goodbye to warm summer memories and hello to new routines. A roller coaster of past reflection and looking ahead, excited anticipation and nervous anxiety, the comforts of familiarity, and the nerves of newness, this time of year takes families on an unmatched ride that inevitably leads to evolution and growth for all.
In years past, back-to-school stressors tended to center around things like fear of unknowns, the desire to remain in “summer mode,” the pressure of scheduling and planning, and the general process of settling into a new year. This year, however, has an added layer of stress and anxiety for some families.
A new layer of back-to-school stress
Although last year marked a toe-dip back into in-person and life as usual, schools and families struggled with absences and gaps in learning, re-entry fears, lapses in social-emotional skill strengthening, acclimating to new safety protocols, and other issues such as the children’s mental health crisis (AACAP; CHA; AAP, 2021; Piore, 2021). This year is projected to also be a challenge. With many lingering unknowns regarding post-pandemic life, critical teacher shortages, the aftermath of COVID protocols and “new norms,” rising costs due to inflation, and other fears such as school safety protocols, the stress of returning to school may be amplified.
By planning ahead, checking in, and keeping a few simple reminders in mind, however, these enduring and newfound back-to-school stressors can be combated.
Check in with yourself. First and foremost, you want to check in with yourself. Take some time to notice how you are doing with the current state of the world and its impact on your loved ones. Notice how the shift back into routines and responsibilities is impacting your stress level, as well. Have you been feeling overly pressured to settle your family back into these routines, to schedule all of the back-to-school events and extracurriculars, or to perform other necessary duties? Gauge your stress level and recognize how current stressors are affecting you. Self-awareness and recognition will provide clarity and may lead you towards self-coping and grounding opportunities.
Once you have recognized your stress levels and determined a plan to lower them, take heed not to transfer your stress onto your children. Try to remain cool, calm, and collected in front of your child. Avoid presenting high stress through tone, nonverbals, and comments. If you do allow your stress to shine through, use that as a teachable moment to model a solution-oriented growth mindset and how to use coping techniques.
Check in with the school. When possible, try to attend back-to-school functions, such as PTA/PTSA kickoff events, sneak peek/orientations, Back-to-School Night, and teacher meet-and-greets. These events usually provide you with helpful information and a sense of support nets, and allow you and your family to ease back into the school year with connection and positive vibes.
If you notice heightened stress or anxiety in your child, be sure to connect with the appropriate school staff. You may choose to notify your child’s homeroom teacher, the school counselor, or an administrator of your observations. This advanced knowledge will help them to prepare plans to best support your child in the transition.
Rising costs and/or unemployment are impacting more families this year. If you feel that these issues may affect your family, consider applying to Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS), Direct Certification for Medicaid, or call the school to learn more about the 2022 USDA Nutrition Programs. You can usually get this information from the front office staff.
If time permits, you may want to consider signing up for volunteer opportunities at the school. This connection with the school may lessen your stress, and your presence peppered into the first few weeks may ease your child’s stress, as well.
Check in with your community. Touching base with other parents via forums, discussion boards, social media, committees, organizations, or old-fashioned meetups can also be very helpful in easing back-to-school stress. These connections can provide you with additional information, ideas, a sense of belonging, and the knowledge that you are not alone.
Additionally, you could check in with coaches, tutors, team leads, and other trusted adults who take part in community back-to-school extracurriculars. Give them a sense of your child and their needs, gain a sense of their expectations and upcoming events, and gather other information that can help you plan ahead.
Lastly, you may want to explore opportunities provided by outside sources, such as parent workshops and discussion groups provided by therapy groups, educational organizations, and other institutions within your community. Many of these opportunities center around stress, routine, communication, and creating calm during stressful transitions surrounding school.
Check in with your child. If you observe heightened stress or worry in your child, be sure to check in with them. Listen, acknowledge feelings, and validate with comments such as “that must be very hard” or “I can understand why you feel this way.” If necessary, strategize and create a plan with them to ease their worries. Avoid prompting or asking leading questions that could increase or create new worries. Rather, let them lead the conversation and, if needed, ask general, supportive, and curious questions.
You may find it helpful to treat this school year as a fun new challenge. In fact, you may even consider creating a 30-day challenge (Day 1 = perform one act of kindness for a peer, Day 2 = say hello to a peer you haven’t spoken to yet, etc.). This will provide your child with something fun to work towards and the opportunity for you to praise and start a conversation with them about each challenge they attempt and/or succeed in. Be optimistic and talk about the exciting moments that come with the start of a new school year (new events, friendships, new clothes and materials, etc.)
Younger children may also need you to teach them the language when speaking with a trusted adult in the school for any range of needs, including asking for help, requesting a bathroom break, etc. While teachers usually have structures in place for this, it is still a good idea to teach your child for those initial few days before classroom structures are embedded. While you are at it, you may also find it helpful to refresh your child’s friendship-making skills. This can be done through role play, bibliotherapy, or using stuffed toys as main characters in a friendship-making skit.
When it comes to coping with back-to-school stressors, it is helpful to provide your child with consistent coping, frustration tolerance, and adaptability skills. If needed, consult with the school counselor to better understand how they go about teaching these skills, then gather their thoughts on how to continue these lessons at home. Finally, be sure to praise specific actions and behaviors that demonstrate responsibility, resiliency and coping, and good citizenship. This praise will allow your child to see not only that they are making good choices but that you recognize the effort they are putting in.
In addition to checking in, a few other steps can help to ease the transition back:
If your child is in distress over the thought of returning, create a plan for and with school support. This could involve classroom teachers, school counselors, administration, paraeducators, and any other staff member who has the ability to lend a hand.
Take a few “dry runs.” This could be the route to and from school, a walk through the school (if permitted) to help your child get a good grasp on how to get to their classroom, to specials, to the cafeteria, to the bathroom, to the school nurse, etc., or any other maps and routes that your child needs to know. Taking these “dry runs” will provide your child with the comforts of rote memory and control.
Start the new school year routine a few weeks early. In order to avoid pre-evening and first-day shockers, make sure that bedtime routines, morning routines, homework, after-school routines, and daily structures are well established and in place.
Arrange some playtime with classmates. This will help to give your child a boost of confidence and comfort in knowing that they will not be alone on the first day.
Be present. Establish daily moments to talk and bond. This could be a few minutes at breakfast or during the commute, during an after-school snack and chat, at bedtime, or any time that you can ensure a consistent few moments each day. This consistency and knowledge that they have your full attention will ease worries that they will not be heard or that you may not be able to talk through worries with them.
Pop onto your district’s website and get a feel for the quarter’s objectives, key concepts, and roadmap for success. If you know what your child is learning, when, and how, you will be better prepared to support them in their academic endeavors.
Get all back-to-school medical needs on your calendar. Make sure you schedule your child’s booster shots, dental exam, eye exam, etc.
If school-based anxieties and extreme distress persist, set up a time to meet with the school mental health team (school counselor, school psychologist, classroom teacher, etc.) to share observations and ideas. If these issues continue still, consider seeking outside mental health support for your child.
Remember, the back-to-school transition is a process of maneuvering and molding each year. You do not have to have everything down to a science. Allow yourself and your family some leeway and some grace, keep your humor alive, and trust that everything will be OK. It’s going to be a fabulous school year.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Children’s Hospital Association, & American Academy of Pediatrics (2021, October 19). AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. https://www.aap.org/en/advocacy/child-and-adolescent-healthy-mental-dev…
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