August has been coined the “month of Sundays,” and for good reason. As beach days and lazy afternoons begin to wind down, it’s time to brace ourselves — and our kids — for back-to-school shopping, alarm clocks, and homework.
The end of summer and the beginning of a new school year can be a stressful time for parents and children dealing with “back-to-school blues,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA), which offers the following tips.
Practice the first day of school routine: Getting into a sleep routine before the first week of school will aid in easing the shock of waking up early. Organizing things at home (backpack, binder, lunchbox) will help make things go smoothly.
Talk to your child: Asking your children about their fears/worries about going back to school will help them share their burden. What did they liked about their previous grade? See how those positives can be incorporated into their new experience.
Empathize with your children: Change can be difficult, but also exciting. Let your children know that you’re aware of what they’re going through and that you will be there to help them.
Get involved and ask for help: Knowledge of the school and the community will better equip you to understand your child’s surroundings and the transition they’re undergoing. Seek expert advice from a professional if the stress of the school year is too much to handle on your own.
Martha Evans Morris, LMSW (licensed master social work), is a Ridgefield-based psychotherapist for middle school children to adults specializing in anxiety and depression. “We all have trouble getting back to work after vacation,” Morris notes. “School is a child’s job and they go through the same reentry friction we all do. All children will have some level of difficulty heading into the school routine after summer and that’s okay. They also may be looking forward to the first day of school with anticipation and excitement.”
Morris explains that children’s behavior is their way of communicating with us, and the behavior is the symptom, not the diagnosis. “The behavior may be the tip of the iceberg with the real issue just under the surface,” she says. For instance, a fifth or sixth grader who is obsessed with getting her pony tail right or his outfit just so, to the point that it gets in the way of getting out the door, is likely not vanity … they may very well be anxious.
Jennifer Formoso, a Trumbull-based LCSW, (licensed clinical social worker), concurs: “As we transition from carefree summer days to school, children (and parents alike) may be experiencing a range of emotions. It’s very common for children to start demonstrating some degree of anticipatory stress or anxiety as the time for this transition draws near. Parents might notice children becoming more irritable or worried or, in general, not acting like themselves.”
Formoso suggests talking about the upcoming changes ahead of time to help children prepare for them. Explain that it’s normal to have mixed feelings about this transition. Model healthy coping skills for them as they’ll take their cues from their parents. Develop a plan to address any anticipated difficulties. Knowing your child best, you’re equipped as their parent to form an individualized plan that will work.
“Explain to your child, a few weeks before school begins, that you’ll be expecting them to get to bed 10 to15 minutes earlier every night and wake up 10 to 15 minutes earlier every morning,” Formoso says. These changes will ensure a smoother wake up on the first day of school for students of all ages. Cutting back gradually on late nights also means cutting back on electronics. A little less screen time prior to bedtime will help kids fall asleep earlier and wake feeling more refreshed.
It’s important to remember that summer-to-school transitions not only affect children and parents but teachers alike.
Jeannine Quick, a fourth-grade teacher at Elizabeth Shelton School in Shelton, says that when school starts, there’s a lot to cover … much more than assessments and curriculum. “The beginning of the year is spent on establishing routines and rules and getting to know one another and building a classroom community together,” she explains. Spending time on these essential components with a new class will help to set the foundation for the rest of the school year.
“During the first few weeks of school, I find myself repeating the mantra — for myself as well as for the students — new year, new start,” Quick says. Understanding that a student’s daily life during the summer looks much different than his or her daily life during school (a teacher’s does, too) requires patience and practice.
Experts agree that one of the most critical pieces to coping with back-to-school stress is the role parents play in aiding that smooth transition. “Parents can show their interest by taking time to talk with their child every day about school,” Quick notes. Ask your children what they learned in math that day, what book they’re reading, what was their proudest moment of the day, and/or did they learn something new about a classmate?
Morris also suggests starting a practice of sharing the failures of the day at dinner. “Celebrate the process of trying, messing up, and moving forward,” she states. This will slowly start to lighten the pressure that pervades kids’ lives and will make it easier for children to feel safe sharing tough things with their parents in the future.
“Nobody’s perfect and we’re all in this together,” Morris contends. “Kids are doing the best they can. Parenting is hard. Acknowledge difficulties with compassion for your child and yourself. Enlist help from a team of people (school, outside professionals, friends, coaches) that can support your family.”
Formoso agrees. “If your child’s struggling with what seems like a concerning degree of anticipatory anxiety, don’t hesitate to contact a mental health professional who can help you and your child uncover any underlying issues or concerns and swiftly address in a manner that supports you both.”