Big transitions—even exciting ones—are a shock to the system. And starting school is a major change for families, with new routines, rules, and people to get to know. It’s natural to feel a little nervous, but addressing childrens’ concerns ahead of time can help smooth the transition.
In the weeks before school starts, talk to your child about what to expect. Laura Petix, MS, Pediatric Occupational Therapist at The OT Butterfly, advises parents to help children become familiar with as many details about their school as possible. This includes showing them what the building looks like, from the playground to the inside of the classroom. You can see if there are photos on the school website, or better yet, visit it in advance.
“You can even ask your principal to set up a meet-and-greet with your child’s teacher before school starts if you think it would help,” suggested Petix. “Don’t be afraid to ask [if your school doesn’t offer it already].”
If a meeting isn’t possible, you can show your child a photo of their teacher and talk about what to expect from the school year.
Angie Rivero, a first-grade teacher based in Houston, Texas, explained that students learn through repetition and that it’s helpful to talk about school repeatedly with children to help them mentally prepare.
“It can feel a bit like you’re a broken record, but the constant repetition can really make a difference on the student’s first day,” said Rivero.
Here are some additional strategies for helping a child who’s anxious about starting school.
Have a Trial Run
When Rivero was growing up, her family actually had drills during the week before school started to help her and her siblings prepare. “We would wake up early, as if we had school that day, eat and dress in our uniforms, and walk to the bus stop. It helped us get used to the new wake-up times and get mentally ready for the year.”
In addition to running through the morning routine, you can walk or drive to your child’s bus stop or school with them to practice the commute (which will help you plan, too). Once you’ve determined how long it will take, make a plan that leaves padding for unforeseen hiccups. If you see that the trip is taking 15 minutes door-to-door, get up early enough to leave yourselves 20-30 minutes for at least the first week. That way, if someone forgets their jacket or just needs a little extra time to talk through their worries, or if there’s bad traffic, it doesn’t derail the whole day.
Plan for Mindful Mornings
Petix adds that you can use the morning to guide kids through a few self-regulation strategies. Some of these could even happen in the car, such as listening to calming music or playing a game of “I Spy” to engage the mind.
Beyond that, there are many mindfulness activities to try out with children, such as belly breathing—the practice of taking slow, deep, thoughtful breaths for a few minutes. These kinds of habits can help people at any age calm their minds and turn off the “flight or fight” instinct that causes stress to spike.
If your child has already been in school, Petix said it’s helpful to use the same lunchboxes, water bottles, backpacks, and clothes that they’re already familiar with for at least the first few weeks.
“Starting a new class or grade is already full of so many new, unpredictable routines,” she explained. “You want the small daily routines to be as familiar and safe as possible.”
Rivero suggests that for very young children, it can help to put a nametag on them that lists their full names, teachers, and grade levels. That way, any adults they encounter—including support staff like counselors and volunteers—can easily help guide them throughout the day.
Ease Separation Anxiety
If your child has expressed worries about being away from you, Petix recommended packing a photo of you to put in their backpack or a small note for them to read in their lunchbox. You could even wear matching bracelets that remind you to think of each other during the day.
At the same time, remember that it just takes some kids time to get used to their new surroundings. A good friend of mine was dismayed when her son initially hated daycare. He cried, it disrupted his sleep, and she momentarily doubted her decision. But within weeks, he was thriving. Having a bad first day or even month doesn’t necessarily mean that your child won’t learn to love school.
Having a bad first day or even month doesn’t necessarily mean that your child won’t learn to love school.
One caveat is that if your child is extremely or chronically anxious, it could be an indication that more intervention is needed. Your pediatrician is a good place to start if you have questions or would like a referral to a specialist.
Take Care of Yourself, Too
Children are very sensitive to their parent’s emotions. When you’re more stressed than usual, your kids might sense that and feel uneasy. It’s easy to pour all of your energy into your kids, but remember the metaphor from the airplane safety announcement: “Buckle your life vest before assisting others with theirs.”
Of course, there are plenty of society-wide factors adding pressure to parents’ lives right now that are outside of our control, like the ongoing pandemic and unstable economy. But if there’s anything you can do to manage stress, whether it’s going to bed earlier, seeing a therapist, asking for more help from your spouse/co-parent, or something else, trust that having your emotional needs met will have a positive impact on the whole family.
Rivero urged parents to be patient with themselves and their kids. In her experience, most families tend to have a relaxed structure during the summer and the first days are especially hard. “The school days may be tiring at first, and that’s okay. Little by little, they will get used to the school structure.”