Dealing with Back to School Jitters

Tips from Houston’s top child psychologists that will get kids (and parents) over their nerves and onto a great, fresh start.

When my son Eli started first grade, he was anxious about the things that most kids fear. What if he didn’t like his teacher? Or something was really hard? Or none of his friends were in his class? The last one was his worst-case-scenario: no friends. To ease his worries, I called a few other parents. To Eli’s disappointment – and mine a little too – it seemed as though none of his friends from kindergarten would be in his class that year. I knew that in the real worst-case scenario, he would make friends with whoever was in his class. He has an uncanny ability to be friends with literally everyone. Still, I didn’t want him to worry. Ever the optimist, I told him a little story.

“I’ll bet that right now there is a kid who has just moved here. He is sitting at home, just like you, worrying that he will not have any friends.”

This seemed to ease his worries, at least a little bit, and on Meet-the-Teacher Night my words came true. Like magic, a little girl entered the classroom. She was new, had just moved here from another state and was worried about making friends. Heroically, Eli took her by the hand and gave her a tour of the classroom, despite the fact that first grade was new to him too. The pair instantly hit it off and became good friends.

Children naturally worry about back to school time. Parents do, too. There is something about change and the unknown that bothers everyone on some level. I’m sure both of my children will have a few back to school jitters this year and yours probably will, too.

I gathered advice from child psychology experts Lisa M. Elliott, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and Clinic Manager at Cook Children’s Medical Center, a Fort Worth-based not-for-profit pediatric healthcare organization and Lou Ann Mock, Ph.D., a psychologist at Houston-based DePelchin Children’s Center. They had some great advice on how to help.

1. Know what to expect.

“Be sure to attend any type of school orientation day,” says Elliott. Most schools offer a ‘meet the teacher night’ so that students can acclimate themselves to the new environment. Spend some time talking to the teacher and familiarizing yourself with the new classroom. This will also give your child a chance to see who will be in his/her class.

2. Ease into changes.

“Beginning to ease back into a school day routine is helpful,” says Mock. Rather than making a big change all at once, move bedtime a few minutes earlier each night. Elliot also recommends going a step further. “Help your child prepare mentally for school by reading more, practicing math facts and engaging in other fun academic related games.”

3. Talk about your child’s worries.

Sometimes children are anxious about the unknown, so if you can answer questions, that can go a long way. Mock explains, “Talking about what he/she is anxious about would be a good place to start. Then you can address the specific fears. One girl was afraid to start a new school, but when questioned, it turned out she didn’t know where the restrooms were and would be too shy to ask! That was a simple fix.”

4. Involve your child in supply shopping.

Crowded stores and waiting in lines may not sound like much fun. However, letting him/her choose some of the supplies will “help them to take ownership” suggests Elliot. Even if you have a fairly specific list, your child can choose items in his/her favorite color or a lunch box with his/her favorite cartoon characters.

5. Stay positive.

Changes are stressful for adults too, but keep those concerns to yourself. Focus on what is most comforting, whether that is something new and exciting or old and reliable. “Try to be optimistic, supportive, and validating. Change is scary, but you have every confidence they will do fine.” says Mock.

6. Get organized.

Avoid rushing or forgetting anything by planning the first day. “Organization can often help ease your child’s concerns,” suggests Elliot. She recommends laying out clothes and packing lunches the night before.

7. Send a photo or notes.

For young children or those with separation anxiety, send a photo that can be kept in the locker or pencil box. Elliot recommends, “A very helpful tool is to place a family photo in a photo keychain that they can attach to their backpack.” Your child can check in with your smiling face whenever he/she is feeling anxious. A short note in the lunchbox will also brighten your child’s day. Even for those too young to read, a cute doodle or “I (heart) U” is perfect.

8. Establish a routine.

Back to school means back to homework and extracurricular activities, too. Mock suggests, “From the beginning establish a reasonable routine of snack, break, and then homework prior to television or other activities.” For kids who struggle with grades, positive habits can make a huge difference.

9. Set goals for the year.

Ask your child what he or she is looking forward to most, recommends Elliot. Create a list of things your child wants to accomplish this year, such as honor roll or a certain number of Accelerated Reader points. When the goal is met, celebrate it.

10. Don’t over-do it.

It can be tempting to fill your child’s schedule with fun extracurricular activities. “Each child is different,” warns Mock. “Your daughter/son may be capable of lots of activities when another child might be overwhelmed with the same schedule.” If your child seems anxious or tired, it may be necessary to cut back on something.

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