child looking tentatively at a yellow school bus

Family Health

How to Make Back-to-School Transitions Less Traumatic for the Entire Family

Aug 30, 2018

Summer’s end approaches steadily whether we are delighted or hesitant to see the calendar edge toward school days and fall schedules, lunch boxes and transitions.

Adjusting to going back to school has an impact on every family with school-age children, and there is almost always a range of deep feelings including excitement, fear of the unknown, loss of the treasured slower pace of summer or joy to see students head back to the classroom at last.

While January 1 is one way to signify a new year, we mark another new year as schools re-open in September. And the start of a new school year carries with it more potential for uncertain anticipation and ready-or-not jitters. While back-to-school stresses are normal and expected, they can be addressed by parents and children together and here are some things to consider as Labour Day approaches.

Understand your child

  • Listen to your child’s feelings and thoughts about school starting. Begin to take in your child’s expressions of emotions so that as school draws closer, you can be prepared for conversations that support the school transition.
  • If children express fears before school starts, remind them that they can draw on skills they have, and the many people who care about them. For example, remind them of the people who can help and how they can ask for help. Also, discuss what happened the last time they tried something new. 
  • Encourage a growth mindset. Maybe you'd say something like, “you might not be able to do everything the first time, but that’s okay because you’ll get better each time you try." Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University points out that, whatever your child’s capacities, a growth mindset contributes to the child’s sense of continuous improvement in learning situations. This is based on the belief that one's basic qualities are things one can cultivate through personal efforts, and it helps everyone see the skills they have today are just the starting point for development and problem solving.
  • Adopt an open and accepting stance in responding to your child. Know that your child brings unique skills and experiences to situations that are new but may need encouragement and honest reminders of past successes to recognize these strengths. Some may have had negative experiences that are obstacles to optimism for the September transition. Be realistic about these as well. Be specific about how you will help and decide together which strategies are best.

Relevant Reading: How to Help Kids Who Struggle With Daily Transitions

What you can do before school begins

  • Do whatever is allowed/possible to familiarize your child with the facilities, key adults and peers in your child’s class. This can increase comfort with the situation.
  • Let your child make important choices among appropriate options like: what to wear, backpack/lunchbox, school supplies. This can help your child have a sense of control.
  • Encourage your child to think ahead about what to share with the teacher and/or peers to start a conversation and build a relationship (like a funny story from the summer, or a photo of a favorite activity, pet). For children in early years classrooms, drawing a picture or making something simple for the teacher also gives your child a point of connection in terms of entering the classroom.
  • Avoid repeated reminders of expected behaviours and drilling of academic facts. It might seem that you’d be helping your child be prepared, but it generally adds stress or worry about not being/doing well enough.
  • Plan for extra time for your child’s pace, rather than constant rushing. Rushing adds to stress. You might begin the school-year bedtime and wake-up schedules before Labour Day, but you will know best how your family adjusts to time changes.

Relevant Reading: Why You Should Add an Eye Test to Your Back-To-School Prep List

For the initial days/weeks of school

  • Include surprise notes, photos and more to be found during the day to let your child know they’re remembered at home.
  • Show confidence in your child’s ability to manage even challenging situations.  
  • Plan for extra hugs, snuggle time, chatting time and whatever is best for calming your child before school, after school and during the bedtime routine.
  • Attend all early year school events to familiarize yourself with the teacher and school. Send a quick email of thanks and connection to the teacher. Early in the year, offer your time as a volunteer if you can, even if it's not possible on a regular basis.
  • Avoid setting unrealistic schedules of extra-curricular events. Keep in mind that play time, family time and down time contribute substantially to your child’s growth and development.

Relevant Reading: What to Do When Your Child's School Fails to Support Their Needs

When back-to-school transitions are especially difficult

  • Remember that you are a powerful advocate and welcome voice if your child is not finding they're making robust connections at school. See yourself as part of the team that includes the school administration and teachers, your child and any others who know and understand your child’s needs.  Let your child know the team is there to help.
  • Consider professional resources.  A strong set of materials for early years and elementary school-aged children and their parents is The Psychology Foundation of Canada’s Kids Have Stress Too! program. It is a sound, research-based resource for parents to help their child identify, understand and manage their stress. The program’s tips and strategies and various ideas are notably accessible and successful for both parents and children.
  • Tell the school everything you know about your child that might make the school transition easier. Trusting the school with your family circumstances is a bridge to enhanced communication.
Article Author Elizabeth Morley
Elizabeth Morley

Read more from Elizabeth here.

Elizabeth Morley is Principal Emerita of the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She serves as chair of the International Committee of the International Association of Laboratory Schools.  She is a co-editor of a journal for educators published at New York’s Teachers College, Columbia University, and is a member of the Connection for Life committee of The Psychology Foundation of Canada. Follow The Psychology Foundation on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and to access Kids Have Stress Too! resources.

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