Can you believe it's that time of year again? For kids attending school, especially those headed off to elementary school, that means new teachers, potentially new classmates, a pile of homework and whole lot of anxiety.
Pediatricians liken the first day of school to starting a new job. It can be very stressful for children. They may not know any of their classmates or their teachers. Those are just natural fears that we all have.
The fear of the unknown isn't the only challenge here. Children have had several months of summer activities and a different routine. This may compound their anxiety and be a greater challenge getting them back into their school routine if you are not prepared.
What can you as parents or guardians do to help lessen those back-to-school jitters? How can you make getting back into the school routine easier? What signs to look for to know when a child's stress is more serious? We answer these questions below.
Watch for kids' fears and help them overcome them
Regardless of whether your child is anxious about encountering bullies, making new friends or getting good grades, the most important thing is to have open communication. Ask your child if there is anything they are worried about when it comes to school.
Make sure you listen to what they say, and validate how they feel. Let them know that having anxiety is completely normal, and that everyone is anxious about something, even if they don't show it on the outside.
Share with them that you have also experienced those same fears as a child, and then you sometimes do even as an adult. Let them know that it's normal. It will be very comforting to your child if they hear from you that you have gone through the same thing. Make sure you let them understand that as time passes, so will their anxiety, as their new routine becomes more familiar to them.
Some good news is that most schools are typically open during the summer months and are able to address student needs. If your child happens to be attending a new school, take them for a visit so they will start becoming familiar with their classroom, playground, bathroom and staff. It is important that you make it a high priority to be at any orientation opportunities at your school. Check to see if your school has a buddy program, whereas younger children as paired up with older kids, so they have someone they can ask questions about the school. You will also want to make a solid plan for your child's route to school, whether they are walking, riding a bike, or taking a bus.
Besides helping settle some of their fears about school, it can help get them excited about their upcoming school year. Be sure to be positive and make it fun. Teach them that learning is fun, and talk with them about their subjects and the opportunity to see some of their old friends. You can also involve them in the school shopping process, for supplies, clothing, etc. Give the an opportunity to be excited about selecting notebooks, pencils, and backpacks.
This would also be a good time to see what interest your child might have in various after-school activities. There are usually options like recreational soccer leagues, school bands, art club, etc. that can help your child develop their people skills, and make new friends. And, you may find some life skills along the way.
Healthy routines are good for your child
Help ease your child's anxiety during those first few days of school by setting-up a routine with good habits, ones that make healthy, stress-free habits. This can be accomplished a number of ways, including laying out school clothes the night before, or pre-planning times for specific activities, to include the following:
Nine to 11 hours of sleep every night for children ages 6 to 13 are recommended by the the National Sleep Foundation. Lack of adequate, quality sleep has been linked to a higher risk of academic issues and behavioral challenges.
With the start of school approaching, start moving your child's bedtime up in increments of five minutes per night, beginning about a week before school starts. Begin setting the alarm to wake up a little earlier each day.
Having a consistent schedule for the evening hours will also help pave the way to the new, earlier bedtimes. Studies indicate that the use of electronic devices in the evening hours can lead to poor quality sleep. So, make sure that all electronic devices, including cell phones, video games, tablets and televisions are turned off at least 60 minutes before bedtime. Use the quiet time for them to shower, brush their teeth and hair, and settle down for the night's rest.
A lot of start-of-school stress for younger students can be attributed to homework. In today's busy world it can be challenging, but you will need to block off time for your child to complete their homework, and be available to assist them, as needed.
They should have a quiet place, free of clutter and distractions, such as a kitchen table or a home office. Distractions such as computers, phones, and video games should be turned off, except if a computer is needed for the homework. Make sure that you are available to help them with their homework, but do not do their homework. You should provide motivation, support, positive reinforcement, and healthy snacks.
A planner, dry-erase board or other such items can help them to get organized to keep track of assignment due dates, tests, and any other related activities.
Give your child a great start to the day with a healthy breakfast so they can focus on their schoolwork. Select foods that are low in sugar, but have protein, fiber, and good fats like fresh fruit, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, or whole-grain toast with peanut butter. Besides helping them focus better, a healthy breakfast will provide enough fuel for their bodies and minds to make it through the morning.
For your child's lunch, pack their meal the night before, and make it healthy. If your child buys a lunch at school, many schools will allow you to maintain a lunch account online. Many families are eligible for a healthy, no to low-cost lunch (and sometimes breakfast). Check with your school to see what is available for your child.
Another great avenue to help your child concentrate and get rid of stress is exercise. Experts have recommended that children who are six years of age and older should get at least 60 minutes of moderate exercise daily. Organized sports to playing outside with friends is often enough to help them.
As a parent or guardian, you can help your child relax, by relaxing yourself. This means you need to get your ducks in a row now, well ahead of the school bell ringing. The more proactive you are, the more stress you and your child can avoid.
Schedule physicals and vaccinations sooner than later. You can even have them taken care of in the summer and avoid the beginning of school rush. Make sure the school nurse is aware of any health conditions that your child may be facing such as food allergies or asthma. They will need to know ahead of time when and how to administer those medications. Be sure to fill out all of the school's health and emergency contact forms as well.
Should you have a child who has an individualized education program, or IEP, you should confirm your child's teachers, schedules, and accommodations, especially if you have are at a new school. It is important to send copies of the IEP to relevant staff, and to ensure that your child understands what services will be provided to them.
When it might be too much anxiety
Back-to-school fears can sometimes be in excess. You may notice that your child's fears, if not addressed, can compound and lead to anxiety. You will begin to notice their gradual resistance to school, perhaps increased crying, less patient, more anxious.
Should your child's fear struggles increase instead of lessen, or if you notice physical challenges (linked to stress), such as stomach aches or headaches, contact a teacher, school counselor, or your child's healthcare professional. A pediatrician's job is to reassure their parents their child can overcome this challenge, or help the parents with tips on how to. A healthcare professional should also be able to help diagnose anything more serious, such as depression, and help them get the treatment they need.
The normal fears of a new school year are completely understandable, but, ultimately, addressing those fears head-on, encouraging good, healthy habits, can really help you and your child to relax and hit the ground running for a really good school year.