I can vividly recall how I felt as a child as the first day of school approached. It was a unique mix of excitement and trepidation. Somehow, I couldn’t wait to go back just as much as I dreaded the actual day.
This year, our children’s feelings about school maybe even more intense after an unusual year and as so much still seems uncertain. However, there are things we can do to reduce our children’s anxiety and to help them get ready for the return to in-person school.
If you have a preschooler or kindergartener, help them feel as prepared as possible. When they know what to expect and feel that they are equipped to handle different situations, their anxiety lessens and they will enter school with confidence.
Lunchtime can be an overwhelming experience for little ones. Talk through the lunchroom experience and how much time your child has to eat. Prepare sample lunches and snacks in the lunchbox that your child will use so that he can get comfortable opening and closing any containers or items you might include. Teach your child how to refill her water bottle and how to ask for help when needed.
The restroom is another aspect of school that can be daunting for young children. Roleplay asking the teacher to use the restroom as well as the behavior that will be expected. Practice buttoning or snapping pants, flushing the toilet and washing hands thoroughly. Accidents happen! Discuss with your child how to handle a potty accident. Stress that it happens to many children and that it is nothing to feel ashamed about.
If possible, visit the school playground on weekends so that your child can familiarize himself with the playground equipment and get excited about the fun he will have there. Finally, role-play how to ask others to play. Connecting with another child or two in the first weeks will go a long way towards helping your child to feel successful.
Help your child connect with friends. If possible, offer to bring your child and a friend to play at the school playground. Having fun on campus will shrink the thought of school down to a more manageable, familiar size. You can even walk around the outside of the school, encouraging your child to point out familiar classroom windows.
If your child is particularly nervous, consider carpooling to school at first. Walking in with a friend will help your child feel more confident.
Gradually schedule haircuts, buy school supplies, make sure shoes fit properly and stock the fridge with lunch supplies so the family isn’t stressed out by a whirlwind of activity in those first weeks of school.
If your child is a returning student, let her know that she is not behind. Our children have repeatedly received this message from the news, through last year’s test results and from concerned parents chatting with each other within earshot. Everyone is in the same boat and teachers are prepared to help get them where they need to be. Repeat this message often until you can tell that it is sinking in. It is very important for your child to have this reassurance.
Adjust bedtime and wake-up times. Many of us shifted to a summer schedule, with kids staying up and sleeping in later. Adjust sleep and wake schedules gradually until they are waking up with enough time to get ready and out the door in time for school without a lot of rushing and the resultant stress. If you have a high schooler, most likely you have moved to a mentorship mode of parenting, so have a conversation in which you encourage awareness of sleep and its importance to starting school off right.
Ask about fears and make plans. Maybe for your child, it is: “What if I forget my homework?” Or it might be: “What if I don’t know anyone in my class?” Encourage your child to share his worries and make plans for how he might handle various situations.
Fill the time away from school with fun physical activity. Doing something active and engaging will help release nerves and jitters. Bonus points if you bring a friend along to help your child reconnect with a school pal.
If you’re feeling just as nervous about the school year as your child, know that your feelings are normal. We’ve been asked to juggle many decisions and unknowns in the last year and a half. When you factor in that these decisions impact those most precious to us, it’s no wonder we might be anxious. Our children look to us when deciding how to think and feel, so it’s important that we model an attitude of positivity and confidence that they’ve got this! Because they do. Our children have proven that they can be incredibly resilient and adaptable. With our support, they’ll be off to a good year!
Alison Bogle is a writer living in Austin with her husband and three children. A former fourth-grade teacher, she now enjoys writing about children and education.