Forgive your children if they aren’t overly pumped about heading back to school. Their free time vanishes, their morning alarm goes off earlier, and the dark cloud known as “homework” rolls back in to their lives. You’re probably feeling a little unsettled yourself, depending on how the return to school is being handled in your region.
But, don’t lose heart. There are ways to recognize the common back-to-school stressors and watch for “red flags” in your child’s behavior. To get a smooth start and prevent everyone from feeling frazzled, consider trying these strategies and tactics.
1. Watch for warning signs
As kids take on new responsibilities, more activities, and larger homework loads, they are more susceptible to stress. Other sources of tension may include pandemic-related concerns, major family changes, academic pressure, peer relationships, bullying, and upsetting media content (for example, in TV shows, movies and video games).
The good news is, you know your child best – his patterns, his triggers and his hot-button issues. Be on the alert for signs that something is “off” with him. Common symptoms of stress include difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach pain, and behavior changes, such as irritability, impatience and temper tantrums. If you observe any of these in your child, trust your instincts and intervene as soon as possible. Parents can help with managing stress and anxiety, but if the issues persist, some children may benefit from professional help.
2. Ask questions
Proactive conversations about returning to school can help defuse any feelings of worry, sadness or dread. As summer winds down, casually start inquiring how your child is feeling about going back, which classmates she’s eager to see, and so on. The type of conversation will depend on your child’s age, but the goal is the same: to get them talking.
In the early days of school, when you’re eager to know how it’s going, remember that boring questions (like, “How was your day?”) tend to produce equally boring answers (like, “Fine.”). Instead, try asking things like:
- What was the best part of your day?
- What was the funniest thing that happened?
- Did you read a new book?
- Who did you play with at recess?
- If you got to be the teacher tomorrow, what would you do differently?
3. Listen carefully
While it’s certainly helpful to ask the right questions, it’s even more important to listen closely to your child’s responses. By being genuinely attentive, you’re showing him that his feelings are valid and matter to you.
During chats with your child, listen actively and show empathy. Try to remember what it was like to be her age. Don’t leap in with solutions right away, but instead reassure her that you understand her reaction and it’s okay to feel this way. Listen “between the lines” and notice if she is avoiding particular topics or peers’ names. If she seems overwhelmed by a variety of worries, consider taking notes during the conversation so you can eventually address the concerns one at a time.
4. Embrace structure
Life is busy, but staying organized and on schedule helps prevent missed events, last-minute rushing and unnecessary stress. Choose a high-traffic area to post a master calendar that lists all commitments, appointments, activities, school events and due dates. You can even color-code it by family member, if that’s your style. If you prefer a digital solution that can be readily updated and shared, consider downloading a family calendar app to keep everyone in sync.
In addition to a big-picture view of the week or month, younger children may benefit from visual aids to help them through their daily routines. There are many different formats that can be customized to help your child complete independent tasks (such as eating breakfast and brushing his teeth) in the correct sequence.
5. Connect with the teacher
Your child’s teacher can provide valuable insight into how your child is coping during the school day. Build a positive relationship with the teacher by:
- Introducing yourself at “meet the teacher” night
- Volunteering to help with school events or field trips
- Donating supplies to the classroom
- Diligently using the teacher’s chosen communication tools (i.e. daily planner, classroom website, blog)
- Attending a parent/teacher conference
Regular interactions with the teacher (in person, on the phone or by e-mail) are helpful to monitor your child’s progress, both academically and emotionally. If your child seems super-stressed at home, ask the teacher if she has witnessed any uncharacteristic behavior at school.
6. Manage homework
Homework can be a source of stress and conflict, especially when the home environment is doubling as a classroom. If some (or all) of your child’s schooling is happening at home, create a schedule with “recess” type breaks built in. It is also helpful to designate a distraction-free space that will be used for schoolwork.
For students attending school full- or part-time, pay close attention to the teacher’s instructions and expectations. Use online resources to keep track of due dates, and be aware of tasks that repeat weekly (for example, handing in a signed reading log on Fridays). If your child is struggling to stay on top of things, you may want to print out a homework contract that breaks things down point by point.
7. Encourage friendship building
Parents often worry if their child will make friends at school, and it’s true that having a buddy makes the overall experience more enjoyable. While some youngsters are naturally social, kids don’t necessarily innately know how to be a good friend. Interacting with peers helps young school-aged children learn social rules such as cooperating, sharing, being kind, and waiting their turn. Model these behaviors at home and be sure your child is practicing them with siblings, cousins and neighbors.
8. Focus on the positive
If you have an upbeat attitude toward school, your child will likely follow your lead. Children who practice positive thinking are more resilient and better able to cope with frustration or disappointment. When your child does well, provide praise, recognition or a special privilege. When he reports that he had a great day, make a mental note of the details so you can refer back to it when he is feeling reluctant.
By using these practical tips, you’ll be better equipped to handle back-to-school stress. Sure, there will be some stormy days along the way, but if you keep your wits about you, you’ll be able to weather the challenging moments.