Whether their summer was packed with activities or filled with complaints about being bored with nothing to do, kids can have a tough time making the back-to-school transition.
As with any new or unsettling situation — like starting school for the first time or entering a new grade or new school — give kids time to adjust. Remind them that everyone feels a little nervous about the first day of school and that it will be an everyday routine in no time.
Focus on the positive things about going back to school, such as hanging out with old friends, meeting new classmates, buying cool school supplies, getting involved in sports and other activities, and showing off new clothes (or accessories if your child wears a uniform).
It's also important to talk to kids about any worries and offer support: Are they afraid they won't make new friends or get along with their teachers? Is the thought of schoolwork stressing them out? Are they worried about the bully from last year?
Consider adjusting your own schedule to make the change easier. When possible, it helps if parents are home at the end of the school day for the first week. But not all caregivers have that option. In that case, try to arrange your evenings so you can give kids your attention, especially during those first few days.
If your child is going to a new school, try to visit before school starts. For young students, ask if kids can pair up with another student, or "buddy," and how you can connect with other new parents. This will help you and your child with the adjustment to new people and surroundings. Some schools give kids maps to use until things become more familiar.
Set Up Routines
To help ease back-to-school nerves, get kids into a consistent school-night routine a few weeks before school starts. Also make sure that they:
- Get enough sleep. Set a reasonable bedtime (before 9 p.m.) so that they'll be rested and ready to learn in the morning. Consistent bedtime routines go a long way in helping kids have a great day at school.
- Eat a healthy breakfast. They're more alert and do better in school if they eat a good breakfast every day.
- Write down the need-to-know info. This helps them remember details such as their locker combination, what time classes and lunch start and end, their homeroom and classroom numbers, teachers' and/or bus drivers' names, etc.
- Use a wall calendar or personal planner to record when assignments are due, tests will be given, extracurricular practices and rehearsals will be held, etc.
- Organize and set out what they need the night before. Homework and books should be put in their backpacks by the door and clothes should be laid out in their bedrooms.
It's normal to be anxious in any new situation. This will likely go away pretty quickly. But a few kids develop real physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, at the start of school. If you're concerned that your child's worries go beyond the normal back-to-school jitters, speak with your child's doctor, teacher, or school counselor.
Parents themselves can be a little nervous about the first day of school, especially if they're seeing their little one off for the first time or if their child is going to a new school.
To help make going to school a little easier on everyone, here's a handy checklist:
What to wear, bring, and eat:
- Does the school have a dress code? Are there certain things students can't wear?
- Will kids need a change of clothes for PE or art class?
- Do your kids have a safe backpack that's lightweight, with two wide, padded shoulder straps, a waist belt, a padded back, and multiple compartments?
- Do kids know not to overload their backpacks and to stow them safely at home and school?
- Will your kids buy lunch at school or bring it from home? If they buy a school lunch, how much will it cost per day or per week? Do you have a weekly or monthly menu of what will be served? Is there an account number that they need to remember? Can they open bags and bottles on their own?
- Have you stocked up on all needed school supplies? Letting kids pick out a new lunchbox and a set of pens, pencils, binders, etc., helps get them geared up for going back to school.
- Have your kids gotten all necessary vaccines?
- Have you filled out any forms that the school needs, such as emergency contact and health information forms?
- Do the school nurse and teachers know about any medical conditions your child has, such as food allergies, asthma, diabetes, or other conditions that may need to be managed during the school day?
- Have you made arrangements with the school nurse to give any medicines your child might need?
- Do the teachers know about any conditions that may affect how your child learns? For example, kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be seated in the front of the room, and a child with vision problems should sit near the board.
Transportation and safety:
- Do you know what time school starts and how your kids will get there?
- If they're riding the bus, do you know where the bus stop is and what time they'll be picked up and dropped off?
- Do you know where the school's designated drop-off and pick-up area is?
- Are there any regulations on bicycles or other vehicles, such as scooters?
- Have you gone over traffic safety information? Make sure kids know the importance of crossing at the crosswalk (never between parked cars or in front of the school bus), waiting for the bus to stop before approaching it, and understanding traffic signals and signs.
- If your child walks or bikes to school, have you mapped out a safe route? Does your child understand that it's never OK to accept rides, candy, or any other type of invitation from strangers?
- Does the school have the information needed so that other family members or trusted friends can pick up your child?
What About After School?
Figuring out where kids will go after school can be a challenge, especially when parents work. Depending on a child's age and maturity, you may need to arrange for after-school transportation and care.
It's important for younger kids and preteens to have some sort of supervision from a responsible adult. If you can't be there as soon as school's out, ask a reliable, responsible relative, friend, or neighbor to help out. If they're to be picked up after school, make sure your kids know where to meet you or another caregiver.
It might seem like older kids are becoming mature enough to start being alone after school. But even kids as old as 11 or 12 may not be ready to be left alone.
If your kids or teens are home alone in the afternoons, set clear rules:
- Have a time when they're expected to be home from school.
- Have them check in with you or a neighbor as soon as they get home.
- Specify who, if anyone at all, is allowed in your home when you're not there.
- Make sure they know to never open the door for strangers.
- Make sure they know what to do in an emergency.
After-school programs can help make sure that kids are safe and entertained when the school day is over. Some are run by private businesses, while others are organized by the schools themselves, places of worship, police athletic leagues, YMCAs, community and youth centers, and parks and recreation departments.
- offer kids a productive alternative to watching TV or playing video games
- provide adult supervision when parents can't be around after school
- help develop kids' interests and talents
- introduce kids to new people and help them develop their social skills
- give kids a feeling of involvement
- keep kids out of trouble
Check the child–staff ratio at any after-school program you consider, and make sure that the facilities are safe, indoors and out. Your kids should know who will pick them up and when from the after-school program.
Make sure any after-school commitments leave kids with enough time to do school assignments. Keep an eye on their schedules to make sure there's enough time for both schoolwork and home life.
Homework is a very important part of school. To help kids get back into the swing of things:
- Make sure there's a quiet place that's free of distractions to do homework. If possible, make this a space other than a child’s bedroom — this can help with establishing a good bedtime routine.
- Don't let kids watch TV when doing homework or studying. Set rules for when homework and studying are to be done, and when the TV or other devices can be used and when they must be turned off. The less screen time, the better, especially on school nights.
- If your kids are involved in social media, limit the time spent on it during homework time.
- Keep text messaging to a minimum to avoid interruptions.
- Never do their homework or projects yourself. Instead, be available to help or answer any questions, as needed.
- Review homework assignments nightly — not necessarily to check up, but to make sure kids understand everything.
- See how long it takes your child to do their homework. Spending too much or too little time on homework may be something to discuss with their teachers.
Encourage kids to:
- develop good work habits early, like taking notes, writing down assignments, and turning homework in on time
- take their time with schoolwork
- ask the teacher if they don't understand something
To help kids get the most out of school, stay in touch with teachers via email or by talking with them throughout the school year. At parent–teacher conferences, for example, you can discuss your child's academic strengths as well as weaknesses.
Most of all, whether it's the first day of school or the last, make sure your kids know you're there to listen to their feelings and concerns, and that you don't expect perfection — only that they try their best.