How to Calm Kids’ Back-to-School Jitters

4 tips to help ease the transition when kids are feeling a bit nervous.

Parker Barry

“Mom, do you know what’s trending on Instagram today?” my 13-year-old daughter asked with a look of dread on her face.

“No,” I said, not having checked Instagram since, well, ever.

“#backtoschool,” she groaned.

This hashtag-induced panic signaled the beginning of my family’s annual case of school-year jitters.

But experts say kids’ anxiety about the new school year is generally nothing for parents to worry about. As the intensity of the new routine looms on the horizon, a mix of apprehension and excitement is to be expected.

Still, some kids will struggle to get back in the school groove, and kindergarteners and other kids who have moved to new schools this year may especially need extra support. These tips can help your family ease into this season of change:

1. Embrace the fear

For better or worse, having fears in childhood is normal. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 43 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 have “many fears and concerns.” (It’s probably a good guess that most of the other 57 percent have at least some fears.)

The AAP’s site suggests that parents be sympathetic to their kids’ fears. “Do not try to coerce them into being ‘brave,’” advises the AAP.

In fact, a moderate amount of fear can be a motivator that helps kids learn new things and adjust to new situations, says Dr. Lisa Fiore, professor of Education at Lesley University.

Kids experiencing a “moderate” level of anxiety might even get a tummy ache or two, or have a few nights of sleep disruptions as they adapt to the new, fearful situation. But Fiore cautions that these symptoms of moderate stress should not prevent kids from functioning in everyday life. Fiore, who co-authored the book Your Anxious Child: how parents and teachers can relieve anxiety in children, advises parents to consult with their kid’s teacher and consider seeking professional help from a pediatrician or child psychologist if their kid’s anxiety symptoms begin to negatively affect their daily activities.

2. Play to prepare without pressure

Role play situations with your child, including saying goodbye, sharing and playing with some of the tools that will be in the classroom, such as art materials and LEGOs.

“Enact what will be waiting for them,” Fiore says. “(Role play) really does sink in for little ones.”

Visit the school’s playground (even if no other kids are present) to demystify what’s coming and give kids concrete things to get excited about. Also, try reading some back-to-school books that address kids’ jitters in fun ways (PBS Parents’ comprehensive list is an excellent resource).

3. Maximize control and minimize surprises

Since lots at school will be out of your kid’s control, let them control what they can: What to wear, what’s for lunch, parts of the morning routine. Attend a meet-your-teacher event, visit your kid’s after-school care program, and take a test run of the route they’ll walk, bike or drive to school with you or on the bus.

4. Check in regularly

Once school starts, begin a fun, casual daily check-in ritual to keep tabs on how the transition’s going. One idea: Have everyone in your family say something good and something bad that happened to them that day on the way home, at dinner or bedtime. It keeps everyone in the loop and sets up the conversation for much more substantive sharing than does the old standby question “What did you do today?” This gives kids an outlet to let you know the good and bad at school without feeling interrogated, and it lets them in on what’s going on in your daily life, too.

Realistically, most kids will experience at least a glitch or two during the first few weeks of school. They may have issues related to bathroom or lunchtime rules, homework expectations, and playground politics that parents simply cannot foresee, prevent or fully prepare or kids to handle, which is OK.

“Assure (and reassure) children that they can handle it,” Fiore says, and remind them that overcoming fears takes some hard work and practice. “No one ever feels entirely confident walking into a new situation.”

What was your family’s end of summer wake-up call and how do you ease the back-to-school jitters?

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