Preparing Kids to Go Back to School

3 teen students walking into middle school

The start of the school year may bring a new set of challenges and adjustments. Read on for tips to use the summer break to support your child’s health and wellness and to prepare them for the year ahead.

Summer break may be a time for fun and relaxation, but it can also be an opportunity to reset and prepare for the year ahead. Instead of waiting until the end of summer break to talk to your child about the upcoming school year, start talking to them now. 

Here are some ways you can offer your child support and help them prepare for what’s ahead:

  • Ask open-ended questions. You don’t have to wait until your child comes to you to talk about how they feel. Rather than making assumptions, ask open-ended questions to get a sense of what’s on your child’s mind. Instead of asking, “Are you feeling nervous?” try asking in a more open-ended way. For example, “How are you feeling about going back to school?” 
  • Actively listen. If your child feels they have your full attention, they are more likely to open up to you (or even come to you in the first place). Put away any distractions, and listen to understand.
  • Offer support. It is natural to want to jump in and fix things for your child, but try to resist the urge. If your child shares that they are struggling or are worried about something, try asking them what they think they need or what they think will make them feel better. Then follow their lead.
  • Keep the conversation going. Create ongoing opportunities for your child to talk to you about what they are thinking and feeling.

Every child is different. While some kids may be excited or nervous to go back to school, others may not seem to care one way or the other. No matter how your child feels, help them understand their feelings are OK and normal.

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Recognize your own feelings. As a parent, you are human and have your own feelings too. It’s normal to feel worried about your child returning to school; just keep in mind that kids look to adults to see how they should behave or react. If you are showing signs of anxiety, your kids will think they should feel anxious too. Try as best as you can to share your calm with your kids, instead of your anxiety. Consider talking to friends, family and other caregivers about how you feel. If any confusion or uncertainty is causing anxiety, talk with the school to get your questions or concerns addressed.
  • Build their feelings vocabulary. If your child is struggling to identify how they feel, try using “I wonder” statements, such as “Based on what you’re saying, I wonder if you are feeling disappointed that part of school will be different this year. Is that right?” By asking in this way, you are helping them learn new feeling words and giving them a chance to correct you if that’s not what they feel.
  • Validate their feelings. Let your child know you understand how they are feeling by repeating back exactly what you hear, without judging or interpreting. Reassure them that their feelings are normal and that you will help them through it.  
  • Avoid minimizing or dismissing feelings. It’s natural to want to make our kids feel better, but saying, “Don’t worry about that,” or “It’s not that bad,” only teaches your child not to talk about how they feel.

It’s normal for kids to feel nervous when something is new or different and they don’t know what to expect. Help your child feel more independent, confident and prepared by:

  • Attending the “meet the teacher” event or visiting the school before the first day.
  • Driving the bus or drop-off route with your child before the first day and talking about what they can expect.
  • Encouraging your child to practice with any items or materials they will be using on their own (e.g., lunch containers, backpacks, jacket zippers, etc.).
  • Meeting up with other kids who will be attending your child’s school so that your child knows someone on the first day. For kids of all ages, meeting up with fellow students can also help improve their communication and social skills (especially if they are feeling a bit out of practice). For younger children, meetups and playdates have the added benefit of helping to improve skills, such as sharing and taking turns.

One of the best things you can focus on this summer is prioritizing healthy habits to help your child take care of both their physical and mental health as they prepare for the year ahead:

  • Create, or maintain, daily routines to help keep things predictable. Knowing what to expect can help create a sense of comfort and security. Although things will change from day to day, try to have some consistency with bed and wake times to help your child transition back to school more easily.
  • Practice healthy habits. Taking care of both our bodies and our minds, by prioritizing nutrition and sleep, being active and limiting screen time, can help us feel better in times of stress and in everyday life. Practicing healthy habits can have a positive impact on your child’s mood, focus and behavior as they transition back to school.
  • Have fun and unwind! This past school year may have been very stressful for you and your child. It’s more important than ever to take time over the summer to relax and have some fun. Encouraging your child to unwind and have fun this summer—whether it’s spending time with friends, doing activities they haven’t been able to do in a while, or trying something new—will benefit their overall health and well-being!

Even if your child is excited to return to school, they may also have some worries, or anxiety, about the new school year. It’s natural to want to avoid things that cause us to worry or be uncomfortable, but that only makes anxiety worse. Instead of allowing your child to avoid what’s causing worry, help them work through it by learning how to use coping skills to feel better and manage their feelings in healthy ways. It is difficult to learn something new when we’re upset, so be sure to teach any new skills when everyone is calm—and encourage your child to practice these skills regularly. It’s important to teach lots of different strategies kids can use to manage their anxiety because what works for one person may not work for the next, what works today may not work tomorrow, and the coping skills that work in one situation or space may not work in another.

Here are some simple coping skills you can teach and practice with your child:

Regardless of your child’s situation today, their feelings will continue to change as they navigate the summer break and adjust to the new school year. Even though it may feel overwhelming and uncomfortable at times, these experiences can help them become more resilient (able to handle life’s ups and downs). Try, as best you can, to be patient and supportive along the way. 

If at any point you are concerned about your child’s mental health or well-being, consider consulting with your pediatrician or a licensed mental health professional. If there are specific school-related concerns, talk with a school administrator or counselor about supports that may be available.