For grade school kids, the end of summer and start of the school year is an exciting but stressful time. For every known – the school, the reading list, the smell of freshly sharpened pencils – there is an unknown – the teacher, the new kid, the schedule. Worry is natural and fine but, when catalyzed by parental pressure to demonstrate enthusiasm, it can turn to harmful, isolating stress or even dread. Better managed by empathetic parents, back-to-school anxiety can be understood as an obstacle to be surmounted and, with a bit of a push, overcome.
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“We have to be careful about not putting too much pressure on them, because that can make them more anxious,” says Dr. Mary Alvord, author of Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University. She suggests that treating concerns as legitimate and understandable, which they mostly are, goes a long way toward normalization and facilitates a more helpful conversation. That talk can be guided one strategic question at a time: “What are you looking forward to? What friends do you have who might be in your class? What do you like to do at recess?”
With the right cues, kids can be pushed to focus on the positives, on opportunity.
Still, that assumes that it’s easy to tell if a kid is worried and most of the time it isn’t. Alvord recommends that parents spend the end of the summer on alert for “What if?” questions. They are a sign of anxiety, a childish way of admitting concern. For less verbal kids, there might also be physical manifestations of worry, including stomach pains, muscle tenseness, and sleeplessness. It’s the parent’s responsibility to sift through the signs of worry in order to help the child get through it and re-channel their emotional energy.
“The first thing for parents is to listen carefully to what the kids are saying,” says Alvord. “Look at whether their behavior is changing.”
If parents see jitters, Alvord says there are concrete steps they can take to help get their kids comfortable with the idea of their new school situation. First, make sure summer vacation activities wind down at least a week before the start of class, providing plenty of prep time and an opportunity to ease into a more regimented school schedule. Second, familiarize the kid with the school itself. Visit the playground or walk around the building. Sneak inside if you can. Then, finally, try to get a jump on socialization.
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- Get a jump on socializing your child. Try to arrange a play date with somebody who is likely to be a classmate or at least a grade-mate.
- Spend the end of the summer on alert for “what if?” questions or physical manifestations of worry, including stomach pains, muscle tenseness, and sleeplessness.
- Make sure summer vacation activities wind down at least a week before the start of class, providing time to ease into a more regimented school schedule.
- Familiarize the kid with the school itself. Visit the playground or walk around the building.
“Take action, especially if it’s a new school,” says Alvord. “Try to have a play date with somebody who is likely to be a classmate or at least a grade-mate. The key is to not feel alone. We don’t want to feel isolated.”
That said, no matter how prepared a child is for the impending school year, chances are some jitters persist. And that’s perfectly fine: Worry and anxiety can be useful tools in learning about the world and how to solve problems. But that doesn’t mean parents can’t help equip them to pivot on their emotions and transform all that anxiety into positive energy to kick off the school year.
“The most wonderful gift we can give our kids is help with strategies for getting through transitions,” says Alvord.