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The Best Back-to-School TV Episodes For Every Age

Timeless back-to-school episodes for kids, from toddlerhood through high school.

Originally Published: 
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The Back To School Issue 2023

All good things must come to an end, or so the saying goes, and when you’re a kid that’s never more true than when late August rolls around and summer vacation draws to a close. Going back to school means an end to unscheduled days of fun in the sun, but it can also be the start of something good. The first day of school can be the first time a kid meets their new best friend, or it can kick off an important semester of learning and discovery. It can also be, well, not so good. Sometimes back-to-school is hard.

This is why families sometimes turn to our greatest TV shows for guidance. TV isn’t the perfect teacher, but it can help families reflect on their own experiences in cathartic ways. Here are 10 of the best back-to-school episodes, an assortment that captures the highs and lows of stepping back into the classroom — or stepping into a new one for the first time. These episodes are listed here roughly in how young the target audience is for each. So, we’ll start with toddlers, and end with high schoolers!

“A Visit to School,” Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (Age: Toddler to Kindergarten)

As one might expect from a series based on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, “A Visit to School” showcases the same gentle understanding and straightforward communication the beloved children’s show host excelled at. If you’re feeling scared about doing something new — like going to the first day of school — talking it out and preparing for the new experience is a great way to feel more confident. It’s actionable advice.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood streams on Amazon Prime Video.

“First Day of School With Cookie Monster,” Sesame Street (Toddler to Kindergarten)

It’s comforting to see Cookie Monster — a muppet not especially known for much introspection other than “wanting cookies” — be reassured by Kermit the Frog and the other students that it’s OK to be scared about the first day of school, but things really aren’t so bad after all! It’s also reassuring (and very funny, as an adult) to hear Kermit casually mention that he was a “late bloomer” who mostly got C- grades in school. And yet look where he is today!

Sesame Street streams on Max and Amazon Prime with PBS Kids.

"Arthur and the Real Mr. Ratburn" and “Arthur’s First Day,” Arthur (1st grade to 3rd grade )

These two Arthur episodes, from the very start and very end of the long-running PBS series, show how every back-to-school comes with its own challenges — and how all of them can be overcome. In the first episode, Arthur and Buster are nervous about their new third-grade teacher, Mr. Ratburn, until they learn he’s not actually scary at all. Then, 15 real years later, Arthur’s excited to be moving on to 4th grade, until he realizes his best friend Buster won’t be in his class anymore. But, that doesn’t mean that they’ll stop being friends.

Arthur is streaming on Amazon Prime with PBS Kids.

“The New Kid,” Recess (2nd grade to 4th grade)

The Disney Channel series Recess is focused on a group of elementary school friends, but not every member of “the gang” was in the first episode. It’s not until the second episode that Gus Griswald shows up at school. Recess has a great way of heightening normal playground politics and Gus’ struggle to escape the “new kid” label is one that anybody who has transferred schools probably empathizes with — and there’s a very happy ending. Not only does Gus get his actual name back and ditch the “new kid” moniker, but he also gets a group of fast friends.

Recess is streaming on Disney+.

“I Am Karma,” Karma’s World (3rd grade to 5th grade)

The first episode of the Netflix kids' show Karma’s World has the titular character excited about her first day of middle school, only to initially be met with a bully who makes fun of her name Things end up all right, as she makes a friend and the bully eventually apologizes, and the episode offers a more representational take of the back-to-school story.

Karma’s World streams on Netflix.

“First Day & Lockers,” Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide (5th grade to middle school)

The series premiere of this Nickelodeon sitcom understood how seemingly little things can have big stakes when you’re a kid. For instance, locker placement. The main trio of friends, Ned, Moze, and Cookie, all work to stake out a good (or at least a not-stinky) locker in this episode, as they’ll be stuck there for the rest of the year.

Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide streams on Netflix.

“Back to School Blues,” Full House (junior high/middle school)

DJ Tanner’s first day of junior high does not go well, and not just because she’s accidentally dressed just like her teacher, which is just about the least cool thing you can do. She’s also feeling less developed than her classmates and she only has one class with her friend Kimmy. But, “Back to School Blues” knows that a first day of school is always followed by a second day of school, and DJ (with some guidance for Danny) returns the next day with a good attitude and a little more age-appropriate outfit.

Full House streams on Max.

“Back 2 School,” Boy Meets World (Middle School/High School)

Cory and Shawn’s first day of school is exactly as melodramatic as you’d expect from Boy Meets World, but’s also a pretty heavy look at bullying and brotherly bonds, as Eric stands up for his younger bro even though the “cool” politics of having a younger sibling in the same school as you are fraught, at best. And, Boy Meets World gets to keep the sitcom status quo while also shaking things up with the reveal that Mr. Feely has been promoted to be the principal of their new school.

Boy Meets World streams on Disney+.

“First Days,” Modern Family (High School)

Most back-to-school episodes are focused, understandably, on the kids who are stepping back into the classroom. But, it’s a big day for parents, too, and this Season 5 episode of Modern Family focuses more on parents Phil and Gloria as they come to grips with the fact that Luke and Manny are growing up!

Modern Family streams on Peacock.

“Back to the Hellmouth,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer (High School)

OK, chances are the average student doesn’t need to list “vampires” as one of their concerns on the first day of school. But, even if Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s premiere episode isn’t as relatable as some of the other entries on this list, it’s still a great back-to-school episode. Sometimes school sucks, and sometimes it sucks blood.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer streams on Hulu.

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