It’s no wonder this time of the year ranks as one of the highest when it comes to stress and anxiety for back-to-school students, teachers and parents. For everyone involved, there are added commitments of end-of-summer events, last-minute getaways, shopping for the right supplies, starting-up of extracurricular activities and the emotional anxiety that often comes with new teachers and reinstating routines such as waking earlier and resuming homework.
One of the most important aspects of success for children and adults is structure and routine. And transitioning from the relaxed, unstructured days of summer is a state of mind that is radically different than what is needed for the routines to ensure success during the school year. Taking steps now will help the entire family begin the transition smoothly while reducing back-to-school angst and concerns.
Some helpful tips
The “change” from summer to back-to-school is now shifting into gear. And children, like the rest of us, handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. While approximately two weeks before those school bells ring is a good time to establish and familiarize important routines (like bedtimes and dinner routines) — it is also going to take some advance organization and forethought. Here are some helpful tips:
Communication and planning: Schedule a family meeting within the next few days where everyone participates by sharing their thoughts, excitement and concerns on the upcoming school year. Make it a fun and upbeat team effort. Whether entering preschool or any grade through college, by communicating, cues can be picked-up on any related worries or activities that need to be addressed ahead of time.
Utilize a calendar to mark back-to-school and related activities and other pleasurable events — school family nights, upcoming days off and breaks like Thanksgiving and other holidays. Place the calendar in a well-visited location (refrigerator) so it is in sight by everyone, remains relevant and activities are not forgotten.
Schedule follow-up meetings to discuss and check off items: school supplies and clothing; backpacks; upcoming appointments (doctors, back-to-school night, parent teacher meetings); extracurricular activities. Discuss healthy routines like eating balanced meals, daily physical activities and a sound sleep schedule.
Everyone will benefit from knowing what to expect, and talking about their upcoming school schedule and daily routines is key. Bonding over these shared feelings helps everyone feel more connected to the coming days as the school year starts.
Plan test runs: New environments for children (and adults) require great transition. Whether it’s a new school, new teacher or new classroom, it can seem daunting. Plan a visit to school before school starts — walk through the halls, visit the classroom, bathrooms, cafeteria and outside areas. Meet with their teacher(s). Visit the bus stop or take the drive. Take opportunities to point-out positives.
The goal is to provide an opportunity for your student to familiarize themselves before the excitement of the first day when school is starting.
Take note of worries and concerns: Experts underscore to take concerns your child shares about going back to school seriously and acknowledge them. Whether it is about who their teacher will be, challenges and expectations of entering the next grade, starting school, facing a bully after a summer reprieve or the demands of extracurricular activities, you can provide perspective and reasonable expectations or even create a strategy on how to deal with their concerns. Along with giving you additional insight, it helps them accept their feelings while developing coping mechanisms so that they are more resilient.
Discuss your expectations: A leading student stressor is the perceived inability to meet the expectations of parents and teachers. Experts note that while it is important for parents to provide academic support and encourage educational interest, setting unrealistic learning goals like getting a perfect test score or all A’s can backfire as students mistakenly can believe they should master course content versus the understanding that learning new material takes time and effort.
Students need to believe it is OK to allow themselves to learn and understand they may fail. They need to know you commend them for having the courage to admit when they don’t know something and how to work toward learning it.
Accentuate the positive: Focus on the benefits of school, which may or may not include academics, such as socialization, community, inspiration, confidence and learning how to be a part of a team, plan and prepare.
Discuss bullying: Bullying or cyberbullying is when one picks on another repeatedly, and it may come as physical, verbal or social attacks or making threats. It also includes spreading rumors, humiliation or excluding someone from a group on purpose. One approach includes asking your child what bullying means to them and why people bully others. Ask if they’ve ever felt bullied, seen someone being bullied or engaged in bullying (spreading rumors or humiliating or pushing them because they think they are strange or different). Go over the schools anti-bullying program that should be available on their website — it will help you know the resources available if bullying is identified.
Help ensure a healthy transition back to school
• Take care of physical, mental and emotional health: Through a complex manner, your mind, will and emotions are connected to the body through the endocrine, nervous and immune systems. The mind and body communicate constantly. What the mind thinks, perceives and experiences is sent from the brain to the rest of the body. It is important to take the steps in maintaining optimum health physically, mentally and emotionally.
• Breakfast, every day: Performance will be better in the classroom. Healthy breakfast assures better concentration, problem-solving skills, endurance, hand-eye coordination and increased strength for tasks. Being hungry provokes a stress response and can lead to jitteriness and anxious feelings.
• Nutritious lunches: Include more fruits and veggies as well as proteins. Keep your student involved in the selection process (grocery visits and in the kitchen) — it is an investment that reaps profitable dividends while learning about wise choices in the process.
• Physical activity: Being active provides great health benefits, including boosting the body’s feel-good hormones. This can help ease stress, anxious feelings and improve mood and sleep quality. And with increased activities and hectic demands, consider making physical activity part of your family’s daily routine by taking family walks or playing active games together. Parents, set a positive example by leading an active lifestyle.
• Get enough sleep: Sleep is vital — and can be a secret to success in the classroom. Quality sleep improves alertness, aids in good decision-making, improves judgment, spurs creativity and helps to reduce risks in making dangerous mistakes. It plays a critical role in procedural memory — improving motor and visual learning, while also strengthening the emotional components in memories while fending off stress, anxiety and depressed mood. Recommended sleep hours: 3-5-year-olds need 10-13 hours, 6-12-years-olds need 9-12 hours and teens need 8-10 hours. College students need more than eight hours of sleep, yet often end up with seven hours or less — sometimes much less. Not getting enough sleep can have a serious impact on health and learning. Help your students keep good sleep habits.
• Stress management: Studies show that from pre-K through college, stress is a real issue. While some stress is normal and even healthy, students today can encounter many stressful life events at any age. Stress shows itself in even the youngest children via complaints about stomach aches, being nervous, trouble sleeping, anger flares and infections. Chronic stress left unchecked over time will take a toll. It’s important your student understands how to identify and manage their stress.
• Mental and emotional health: Sorting out the causes of sadness, stress and anxiety helps your child manage their emotional health. And as parents, knowing the difference between normal back-to-school jitters and anxiety is important. Experiencing stress or some anxiety when going back to school is a normal response. Some increased moodiness, distractibility, parent/child conflict, self-consciousness and change in sleep cycle are all typical responses to growing up and managing the transition back to school. However, if you notice your child is having more intense or long-lasting mood swings, is severely distracted and cannot complete school work, becomes aggressive with family members, is isolating themselves from others or is staying up all night to complete school work, this may be a sign it is time to seek additional support from a school counselor or your family physician.
Your work in planning and communicating about the back-to-school routines will create a secure, solid foundation for a great transition.
Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author.
Email questions for Dr. Nina to email@example.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line.
This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.