Surely there are some kids who are eager for school to start, but I have not met them. My 9-year-old and 5-year-old daughters have little interest now in trading day trips to the beach and family movie nights for an unfamiliar classroom and nightly homework. Still, a mental shift occurs as the season starts to change.
“Kids are going to be full of feelings about starting school and the feelings of excitement and nervousness live right next door to each other,” said Betsy Brown Braun, the child development and behavior specialist and author of “Just Tell Me What to Say.”
The beauty of this transition period, though, is that it’s a prime opportunity for parents and kids to explore the mixed emotions that crop up as we say goodbye to summer and say hello to new expectations. So as you figure out your kids’ soccer schedule, make arrangements for that sitter or math tutor, or order new highlighters, be sure to involve your kids in the process, no matter how old they are. Take these next few weeks to talk with them about what they’ve liked or disliked about school in the past, what they’re ready to do differently this year, and how you can help them prepare.
Listen to Your Kids
If your child is sad about leaving camp friends or worried about the academic pressures of the next grade level, hear her out — and show empathy. “It’s so important not to try to minimize your child’s feelings about what’s happening. Children of any age want to know that their feelings matter,” said Rachel Simmons, co-founder of the national nonprofit Girls Leadership and author of the forthcoming book “Enough as She Is.” “You don’t have to worry that you will exacerbate her feelings by validating them. You actually will make her feel more comfortable and capable of managing them.”
Then, avoid the knee-jerk reaction to fix everything. Instead, ask your child to brainstorm ways to make the situation better. “We want resilient children, and a resilient kid has the capacity to think about possible solutions to problems. So you can start flexing that muscle with your child of any age, as school approaches,” Ms. Simmons said.
For a kindergartner who is nervous about a new school, you might ask him to think about whether he will feel more comfortable driving to school together or taking the bus with neighbors. For a high school junior who is anxious about SAT prep, ask him to think about what he could change in his study routine that might give him more confidence. This line of thought teaches children that they have the capacity to address challenges. “That’s self-efficacy,” Ms. Simmons said. It’s an empowering lesson that kids can apply during the school year and beyond.
Reassess Family Roles
While you might have a sense of how you want lunches to get made and morning routines to go this year, your children may have very different ideas. So during a relaxed moment, ask your kids what they envision. “This puts more accountability, but also, ownership on them for their own education,” said Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family physician and author of “Get the Behavior You Want… Without Being the Parent You Hate.”
Acknowledge your children’s goals and develop a plan together to work toward them. “I would ask them, ‘What do you need to be successful with homework this year? Do you need a space away from your sibling’s loud video game? How much sleep do you think you need? How long do you need in the morning?’” Dr. Gilboa said.
Then consider what new responsibilities and privileges your child is ready to handle. Perhaps your fourth grader is now in charge of making her own lunch but she also gets the freedom to walk home from school without an adult. Or maybe this is the year your teenager can take the car to school but he also needs to do his own laundry. “This is a fresh start,” Dr. Gilboa said. “I think the month of August is a great time to practice.” The kids will be much more willing to comply if they’ve had a say in the decisions.
Shift Away From Summer Hours
If your family has gotten accustomed to late nights and leisurely mornings, start adjusting the household’s sleep-wake schedule now to avoid a crash-and-burn scenario the first week of school. Have the kids go to bed 15 minutes earlier each night for a week or two in advance of the first day of school so that their bodies gradually adjust to an earlier wake time, suggested Ms. Brown Braun. And if your house rules surrounding screens have gotten lax over the summer, now is the time to lay down new laws.
Do a Health Check
When you stop by the doctor’s office to get health forms filled out, don’t forget that your pediatrician is a great resource to tap. Your child’s doctor can help coordinate things like an allergy plan between your child and the school, or discuss mental health issues. “Pediatricians are available not just for physical evaluations but also to talk about possible learning issues or stress,” said Dr. Gary Maslow, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at Duke Health. “If you have concerns, don’t worry alone. Talk about it with your pediatrician — who will have perspective on how to get you into further evaluation or testing.”
Ideally, your pediatrician is a partner in your child’s well-being. And depending on your child’s needs, it may also be time to let your kid step up and take a more active role in the partnership. This could mean your child may now fill out his own health forms or do more of the talking at appointments. “As kids get older, the parent goes from being the C.E.O. of the child’s care to the consultant,” Dr. Maslow said.
Don’t Underestimate the Value of School Friends
“Children’s No. 1 worry about going back to school, at every age, is ‘Will I have a friend in my class or classes?’” said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a psychologist and co-author of “Growing Friendships.”
“It’s really impossible to overstate how important friendship is for kids: If you want kids to be more engaged in school, help them make friends. If you want them to feel happier, help them make friends. If you want them to be less likely to be bullied, help them make friends.”
The reason friendships have this positive spillover effect is that they contribute to a child’s overall sense of identity and belonging outside of the immediate family. Fortunately, there are ways you can help foster your child’s friendships. For instance, have a late-summer barbecue with a family whose child is going to be in your kid’s class. Or send your child off to buy school supplies with a classmate to deepen their connection before classes begin.
Focus on the Positive
“Every kid is going to bring a certain set of assets and vulnerabilities to the table in starting school, so avoid comparisons,” Ms. Simmons said. “Keep in mind that development is not a competition, and that like you, as a parent, your kid comes into abilities at different times.”
Your job, then, is to play up the positive and be your child’s cheerleader. Remind him of his talents and strengths — and the fact that he’s done this first-day-of-school thing before and survived. (And remember not to groan about getting into school mode yourself so you don’t throw your child off his game).
Then, sit back and savor the rest of the summer. Make it a priority to leave the office early and go to the pool with your kids. Or find that three-day weekend when you can finally go camping as a family.
“We all have ideas about what summer should be and what we wish we could do over the summer,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. “What would count for you?”
Imagine the possibilities and try to make it happen so that you’re ready to greet back-to-school time refreshed.