Tips from the experts on how to help your kid handle back-to-school stress
Transition from lazy summer days back to the daily grind can be tough for kids — and their parents
You might not be ready to hear it, but back-to-school season is nearly here.
Experts say the transition from carefree summertime back to the books can be a stressful time for parents as well as kids, especially if your child has had a tough time at school in the past or has negative associations with it.
"The summer is typically a less stressful time for most kids, so it's a huge shift," said Connie Boutet, a certified school psychologist who works with the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre.
If that rings true to you, Boutet and other experts have a handful of tips to help you get ready for the big day.
Take advantage of school programs before classes start
Schools and teachers know their stuff when it comes to preparing for a new year, Boutet said. From school tours for new students to practice runs in next year's classroom in June, many schools already offer some tools to help your child get a sense of what to expect in September.
"Schools are always planning around how to make that transition easier for children, so I would say parents should take advantage of those opportunities," Boutet said.
That planning can start as early as June, she said. If you didn't get involved in those programs at the time, you can also arrange a meeting with the teacher or principal of the school beforehand, so you know what to expect too.
Practice makes perfect
There's no need for the transition back to school to be too jarring, if you plan ahead a bit.
Susie Erjavec Parker, founder of the parenting blog Winnipeg Mom, stresses the importance of getting sleep schedules back on track in the week or so ahead of the first day back, so your kids are well rested and ready to face the day.
"My kids' sleep schedule has been all over the map this summer, which I think most parents can probably admit to as well," she said.
"So I actually told the kids … 'starting this week, we are going to be getting back to our regular bed schedule, which means regular bedtimes of 8:30 and 9.'"
Boutet adds that changes to bedtimes and wake-ups can be complemented with reductions in screen time, if you plan to change how much you're letting your kids have once school starts.
She suggests doing a few practice runs of the first-day routine itself, complete with setting alarms and making meals, in the week before school begins, so it doesn't come as a surprise to your anxious student.
"They usually say give it a week. Re-establish your bedtime and mealtime routines, especially breakfast," she said.
"Your alarm clocks, your lunches, your bus schedules — kind of getting that all sorted out and doing a kind of rehearsal for that first day of school."
Kids will take their cue from their parents. It's important to model optimism and confidence that it's going to be a good school year.- Connie Boutet
While you're in planning mode, take the time to ask your child what they're looking forward to and which of their friends they're excited to see, Erjavec Parker said.
To build on that excitement and eliminate uncertainties, you can call those kids' parents to see if your children can walk to school together, meet at the school or hang out at lunch, she said.
She added this is important for kids whose parents are separated. Show your child you've got a plan so they don't worry about who's picking them up or dropping them off.
Start positive, stay positive
Chuck Lambert, a facilitator with the Manitoba parenting organization Nobody's Perfect, said when his daughter was school-age, he made a big deal about heading back to school — in a good way.
For him, that included helping his daughter get excited about choosing school supplies, how nice her school was and how much fun she was going to have in the coming year.
"I think it was really important to make sure that it was a positive thing," he said.
Lambert, Boutet and Erjavec Parker all agreed: keeping your own attitude positive will have a big impact on your child.
"Kids will take their cue from their parents," Boutet said. "It's important to model optimism and confidence that it's going to be a good school year."
If you've got concerns of your own — and you might — try not to let them rub off on your kids, Erjavec Parker added. Watch your language and behaviour so little ones don't pick up your stress.
"They pick up on your anxiety as well," she said. "If you're nervous and you're worried about them going, they can definitely feel those vibes from you and it kind of feeds into their own anxiety."
Talk it out — and validate their feelings
No matter how positive you try to be, your child may have serious worries about the coming year that you can address.
To do that, Erjavec Parker recommends simply talking them to try to identify any specific issues or fears that are troubling your child so you can help them plan for, and address, them.
In that conversation, Boutet said it's important to validate your child's feelings and make them feel heard. You can remind them that tough times last year don't guarantee tough times this year — and you can remind yourself of that, too.
"Just saying, yeah, that it's normal to be a little bit nervous, that you just need some time to become familiar with your new environment — your teachers, your classmates, that sort of thing."
Lambert added that when his daughter was expressing her concerns to him, he'd share that he sometimes feels the same way, and it's OK to make mistakes.
"It's scary for me when I start a new job or something, I feel the same way," he said.
He felt it was important, he said, to "let my daughter know that adults have to go through similar things and we're scared too, so it's not just little kids, and it's something you're going to go through for the rest of your life — so it's better to learn now."
If your child is concerned about saying goodbye to all the fun parts of summer, Boutet said it's useful to do a "reality check" — that is, remind them that back-to-school is hard but not the end of having fun.
"It's not as bad as kids or some parents would imagine that it could be," she said. "Been there, done that, done it successfully."
To really drive that point home, she suggests planning something fun for the evening after the first day of school. That way, you can demonstrate to them that there's plenty of time to enjoy yourself during the school year, too.
Lock in details for the 1st morning
When it's time to actually head to school on the first day back, Boutet said it's obvious, but important, to nail down the basics: make sure your child has all the school supplies they need, they've got an outfit they like and a lunch.
This is where your pre-planning in terms of who they'll walk to school with and so on can come into play, too.
"You're just trying to anticipate some of the potential stressors that your child might be experiencing that first day and have … structure in place in terms of reducing that uncertainty," Boutet said.
If you can — and they'll let you — Lambert recommends walking to school with your child. It's precious time together, and it eliminates the need to drive or park in the hectic drop-off zone.
"A little bit of exercise even with little kids burns off that extra energy," he said. "I lived for walking with her — she'd be holding my hand [in] those days."
Stay positive and available
Once the first day is over and you're catching your breath, Boutet said it's important not to forget the positive attitude you adopted at the start.
"Stay positive — maintaining open communication with your child and your child's teachers so you can address any issues that might come up as quickly as possible," she said.
"Going forward, that applies to every day that your child is in school."
It's important to demonstrate to your kids that you're open to problem-solving, she added.
Erjavec Parker suggests waiting a few hours after the end of the school day to ask how your child's day was, to give them a bit of a break, and then asking open-ended questions to facilitate good conversation.
Lambert added he liked to reach out to teachers by phone or email a few weeks into the school year to check in.
"I can't see that hurting your kid in the first month," he said.