As a single mother of a fifth grade student, Christine Schull is already making back-to-school preparations. Her plans include more than purchasing notebooks, pencils and new shoes. She knows that she and her daughter will have to shift their schedules and prepare to get back into a scholastic mindset.
“She gets up early every day … but because it is summer, she wants to go to bed late … about two or three weeks out, I will be much more firm about her bed time,” said Schull, assistant dean and professor of Early Childhood Education at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. “Also, to start getting her academic muscles flexing, I usually supplement with some academic enrichment. I am hiring someone to work with her once a week just to give her a taste of what she will experience in fifth grade.”
Whether a child’s summer is packed with camps and vacations or filled with lazy days and complaints about being bored, students often find the back-to-school transition to be challenging. From the prospect of reuniting with friends to getting reacquainted with homework, it is not uncommon for children to experience mixed emotions about jumping back into a busy fall schedule.
“Going back to school is really more than just a one-day event. [It’s] about the forming of a new habit … the forming of a new habit also includes the breaking of an old one.”
— Lisa Turissini Ed.D., Marymount University
“Going back to school is really more than just a one-day event,” said Dr. Lisa Turissini, Ed.D. assistant professor and chair of the Department of Education at Marymount University. “This type of transition is about the forming of a new habit. Brain researchers agree that the forming of a new habit also includes the breaking of an old one.”
Having a conversation with children and assessing their feelings about returning to school is a good place to start, recommends Licensed Clinical Psychologist Jerome Short, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychology at George Mason University.
“Children have a variety of ways of thinking, feeling, and acting toward the upcoming transition back to school,’ he said. “Some children are optimistic and excited about school and are already preparing for the first day. Others may be anxious or avoid thinking about a new school year, and may need more support, structure, and encouragement from parents to prepare themselves.”
He encourages parents to listen to their children's concerns and expectations and empathize with their feelings. “Summarize what they tell you, and tailor your approach to their needs with their input,” added Short.
It’s not just children who may experience school anxiety. Some parents may be worried about their children starting a new school, changing schools, facing more rigorous academics or dealing with difficult social situations. “Fear of the unknown can cause anxiety,” said Turissini. “Working with your children to build resilience and manage their emotions can be beneficial for the whole family. Children are extremely capable of dealing with change, and parents can help them by creating an environment at home that encourages them to share their feelings about returning to school.”
Reconnecting or connecting with other parents and students for support can help with the transition. “Others may help motivate, empathize, or make school preparations fun,” said Short. “There are opportunities to increase children's communication abilities and social skills if they spend time together on school tasks.”
Planning ahead and establishing a regimented sleep schedule in August can help parents get their children acclimated to the early wake up times for the upcoming school year. “If you want your child to have a less painful transition back to a new school year, now is the time to take proactive measures to change your child’s bedtime routine,” said Turissini.
“…[It] gives their biological clock time to adjust so the transition is not so abrupt,” she said. “A regular bedtime and wake up time will build the needed structure into a child’s schedule, and this new habit will help [a child] to embrace the new routine that the school year brings.”
“Don‘t do it all at once, do it gradually, said Mark R. Ginsberg, Ph.D., dean of the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. “Start with [moving your children’s bed time] one-half hour earlier, then 15 minutes earlier.”
Other recommend time adjustments include reestablishing routines that might have been lost during the summer. “If your summer has been schedule-free, get back to some of your old routines now. Start those regular family meal times or game nights,” said Turissini.
In addition to rearranging sleep schedules, now is the time to tackle back-to-school shopping and schedule doctor visits. “Take a day to get those school clothes, school supplies, and backpacks purchased,” said Turissini. “Make sure your child’s physical exam is up to date. You know the school medical forms will be forthcoming.”
Completing summer reading lists and other summer assignments can also get students ready to learn. “We want students to return to school learning ready, which means children should be reading for pleasure … for about 30 minutes a day,” said Karen O'Neill, head of Lower School at Norwood School. “Sustained reading is a skill that requires practice at home.”
Parents can reinforce a child’s interest in books by reading to their child or reading their own book while their children read. “Don’t turn on the television in another room while your child reads,” said Ginsberg. “Have a family reading hour. Modeling the behavior is powerful for the child.” He suggests setting challenging and achievable goals and being mindful of those that could prove unrealistic. “Start with 20 minutes of reading and then increase it from there,” he said.
“At least one week before the first day of school, create the morning routine that will allow your child to arrive at school with time to organize belongings, chat with friends, and create a mindset for learning,” said O'Neill.
Invite children’s participation when creating a back-to-school plan. “From my own experience as a parent and educator, it’s best to engage them in a conversation, rather than telling them what to do,” said Ginsberg. “Rather than being directive, be collaborative with the child. Ask them what it is that they think they need to do to get themselves ready.'
Going from a carefree summer to a structured school year packed with activities can be jarring for some students. To ease the blow, Turissini suggests having candid conversations about the upcoming school schedule and ways in which the family can establish balance.
“Create a family calendar of school, extracurricular, and family activities,” she said. “Allow for some downtime on the calendar for each child so they can choose to do whatever it is they would like. Kids don't inherently know how to add balance to their lives, so as a parent, it is important to look for the opportunities to model balance at home, work, school, and personal pursuits."
To ease anxiety about back-to-school transportation, Michele Claeys, associate head of school and head of middle school for Norwood School, suggests “if your child walks to school or takes a bus, walk the route together or check out the bus stop together.” Whether traveling by car or bus or on foot, talk about what the schedule will look like on school mornings, including any chores that have to be done before leaving the house. Consider inviting your child to write out a schedule for the morning, including the time needed for each task.
Claeys also recommends taking time to review the curriculum for the upcoming year with your children, if it is available, and talk about some of the things they will be learning. “Hopefully this will inspire excitement about all the learning to come,” she said.