The end of summer may bring thoughts of the autumn colors, crisp fall nights, pumpkins and caramel apples but for many kids it also looms large as the dreaded start of a new school year. But, according to Diane Medley, Student Service Specialist at Discovery Charter School in Portage, parents can help alleviate back to school stress with a few simple techniques.
“In my experience,” said Medley, who has a master’s degree in social work and is a licensed social worker, “for some children who have been with their parents all summer, they often feel separation anxiety at the thought of being apart.”
Medley recommends talking to children about returning to school and work with the on developing a routine such as what time they will be getting up, when the first day of school is, and who their new teachers will be so they know what to expect.
“Get a calendar and mark the days off,” she said. “If they’re going to a new school, drive by so they can see what it looks like. Go to any meet and greets the school is hosting so they can meet their teachers, see their new room, meet other kids who will be in their class and get a feel for their school.”
Sometimes visuals help younger children ease into the new routine. Parents can work with them on making a chart of their school day by cutting out a picture of a clock with their wake-up time on it, then another showing them getting dressed and another eating breakfast. Each picture shows a different step in the day which helps them visually check what step they’re on and to know what to expect next. Often just knowing what’s ahead helps anxious students deal better with their emotions.
While 5th grader Paul Kennedy looks forward to going back to school this fall, his younger brother Owen, who will be entering third grade, is more apprehensive.
“We focus on the positive,” said their mother Mignon Kennedy, a licensed social worker and executive director at Gabriel’s Horn, a short term homeless shelter for women and children in Porter County. “We remind him about what he enjoyed last year about school including activities like hiking and gym.”
Because the Kennedys, like most parents, let their children stay up later in the summer, three weeks or so before school begins, they gradually ease into an earlier bed time. But while making these transitions, it’s important not to frame school as something negative and punishing avoiding using early bed or wake-up times as a threat.
“The week before school starts we don’t let them do sleep overs,” Kennedy said. “We’re trying to be really subtle about changing back to a school year routine so school doesn’t seem like something bad.”
Because Paul and Owen haven’t seen many of their school friends much if at all in the summer, Kennedy said she also talks about the friends they’ll be seeing again and about the teachers they had the year before that they liked.
Another way to help children transition into the school year is by playing math and reading games as well as continue to read books to them.
“It helps them get back on a more organized learning track,” Kennedy said.
Medley recommends transition objects, such as a photo of their parents, keepsake or a favorite stuffed animal, that they can take along to help connect home to school and help relieve stress.
Both Medley and Kennedy also mention that giving children control over some of what makes going back to school special is important.
“I let my children choose their own backpacks,” Kennedy said. “And we go out and buy school supplies together. I remember how excited I got when I was in grade school with my pack of new crayons and pencils. Even getting a glue stick was special.”
Changes such as a regression in behavior or an alteration of mood can be indicative of a child having difficulty coping with going back to school.
“You usually see the most anxiety in younger kids, though I do have a few middle school students and kids with a generalized anxiety disorder who experience difficulty in adjusting” Medley said. “But once they get back to school, I would expect the symptoms to improve in a few weeks. If they don’t, talk to their teacher or the school counselor, they can help.”