For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Learning and School

Back to School: How Parents Can Ease the Way for Every Kid

by Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., and the Staff of the NYU Child Study Center

kids with school bus


For some children, making the transition from summer to school requires more than having the right book bag or sneakers. When parents have particular concerns about a child, advance preparation can smooth the way. The following are some common child and family issues in making the transition back to school, along with suggestions for how parents can help their kids.

A parent's concern - a place to start

Not all children are excited and eager about facing the first day of school. For the child with a less confident style, a learning problem, a mental health issue, or a stressful situation at home, school may present a special challenge. Yet, with proper preparation, the school year can be rewarding for child, parent and teacher. Although no parent or child wants to be labeled by a particular problem, understanding a child's unique style or situation, recognizing his or her strengths and weaknesses, anticipating potential trouble spots, and communicating with educational staff can start things off on a positive note and avoid wasted time later in the year.

Understanding the child who is shy

Certain children have a "slow-to-warm-up" temperament. Regardless of their age, they may feel most comfortable in situations and with people they know. They may be cautious and careful by nature, or be uncomfortable in unanticipated situations. Another area where shyness is often manifested is in developing and maintaining friendships. Remember that being shy is not necessarily to a child's detriment. It's important to discover and enhance the shy child's other abilities; for example, the child's sensitivity and caring as a friend.

Helping the child who is shy:

  • Use a gentle approach - It is best not to force a shy child to get right out on the playing field. A "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" approach can overwhelm shy children. Better to help them manage their "shy" tendencies over time and with practice.
  • Orchestrate and plan activities - Orchestrate play dates or outings with peers with whom the child feels most at ease. Planning the activity with the child ahead of time provides predictability and makes him or her feel in control.
  • Role-play with your child - Practicing how to initiate, join or respond to another person is sometimes all that's needed to help a shy child. Preparing methods of introduction and answers to basic questions, then practicing them with the child at home, at the grocery store or with a new friend can increase confidence.
  • Check out options at school - Talking to the teachers early in the year and requesting their help behind the scenes can add to success. For example, teachers can be mindful of student pairings for projects or suggest other children who might be a good match for after-school activities.

Understanding the child who is impulsive, energetic or excitable

The child who rushes in to things or can't wait his turn may be exuberant yet difficult to control in a classroom of other students. For the Kindergarten and first-grade student, the transition from having unstructured time at home to a place with group rules can be hard. An impulsive child may need to learn how to raise a hand or share materials.

Helping the child who is impulsive, energetic, or excitable:

  • Find outlets for the child - These children need outlets for their enthusiasm and energy. Planning study breaks and scheduling active after-school activities will help them blow off steam.
  • Institute strategies in the classroom - Creating structure in the classroom by coordinating efforts with the teacher can help the child maintain control. Identifying tasks that are well suited to the child's activity level, such as running errands, erasing the blackboard, or passing out papers can also help.
  • Notice and reinforce appropriate behavior at home - Parents can use opportunities at home to work on expected behaviors, for example, taking turns playing board games or talking at the dinner table. Commenting on the child's efforts in these instances and noting their similarities to classroom expectations will improve the acquisition of these skills.

Understanding the child who is anxious

Anxiety about separating from home is found in the early years, especially during Kindergarten and first grade. But anxiety about the upcoming school year can surface later in one's educational career for a whole host of reasons. A child may be uncertain or uncomfortable in social situations, concerned about making friends and fitting in, self conscious about particular problems, fearful of peer pressure, worried about school safety or overwhelmed about impending academic demands.

Helping the child who is anxious:

  • Monitor your own behavior - Although some children may have an inborn tendency to be anxious, most children are exquisitely sensitive to their parents' anxiety. Sensing parental fear can increase a child's fear. For example, the parent of a preschooler may convey ambivalence or guilt about the impending separation. With an older child, parents may unwittingly be pressuring their child to succeed in certain areas (e.g. academics) or participate in certain activities (e.g. athletics), thus interfering with the child's motivation, confidence or enjoyment.
  • Pinpoint anxiety triggers - Getting details about the area of concern is crucial to tackling the problem. The mother of one preschooler was bewildered by her daughter's sudden reluctance to get on the school bus. Upon investigation, she learned the child had fallen off the seat one day, a discovery that enabled her to intervene effectively.
  • Create solutions with the child - Once the trouble spot is identified, asking your child to help think of possible solutions increases the child's sense of mastery. It also ensures the likelihood of success and teaches the child how to solve future problems more independently.

Understanding the child who is precocious

Maintaining a sense of excitement about learning is essential for all children, especially those who may be advanced in certain areas. Children develop at different rates and this may be particularly apparent in the early grades. Children can also vary with respect to their cognitive and emotional maturity. Thus, there can be a wide range of abilities within one child and among different children. Finding the best environment to fit this complex mix is the task of parents and educators.

Helping the child who is precocious:

  • Develop a child's interests - It's fine to encourage a child to pursue a particular passion, skill or interest. This should be done according to the pace and motivation of the child rather than by a parent's intent to push the child ahead.
  • Maintain balance in a child's activities - Children need a range of experiences to increase the depth of their knowledge and to provide needed perspective. Engaging in activities in which the child excels as well as those in which the child is less sophisticated or competent helps the child develop a healthy self-image and teaches him or her to deal with success and failure appropriately.
  • Keep the child motivated - Monitor the interest level of the advanced child. Supplement any in-school work with enriching outside experiences. Pay particular attention to the curriculum. When a child seems truly bored, uninvolved or disinterested, it may be time for an evaluation. Based on the child's performance and achievement, modifications in the educational program may be needed.

Understanding the child who is new to a school or area

Many children worry about fitting in, having the right clothes and finding someone to sit with during lunch. These worries can be exaggerated for the child who is new to a community or school. Although its primary purpose is academic, the school environment revolves around a strong peer culture. Children are initiated into, and influenced by, this culture in different ways.

Helping the child who is new to a school or area:

  • Accept the child's feelings - Children who are new are likely to experience mixed emotions. They may be mourning the loss of the security and familiarity of past friends and surroundings, angry at the change, and unsure of their ability to be socially and/or academically successful. On the other hand, they may be eager about new opportunities. Parents must empathize with the child's struggles, perhaps sharing their own similar feelings and strategies for fitting in.
  • Plan an orientation - Information is key to feeling prepared. Setting up some initial peer experiences, gaining familiarity with the school layout and personnel, and finding out about any particular academic requirements makes the new situation more concrete and increases a child's sense of control.
  • Balance new and old friends and activities - Children should be allowed to maintain a connection to their past while pursuing new experiences. Reminding a child about previous successes and highlighting particular abilities and personal strengths can improve a child's attitude, making him or her feel less awkward. It's fine for children to take time deciding what activities to participate in, and with whom, as they learn about the new cultural norms.

Understanding the child with a learning, physical or mental health difference

Children with a learning difference, mental illness or physical challenge are often integrated within the mainstream of the school environment. Some differences are readily apparent, while others may go unnoticed. Depending upon the problem, a child may feel self-conscious, insecure or ashamed. Being aware of their own feelings and being prepared for the responses of others will help them manage their differences more easily.

Helping the child with a learning, physical or mental health difference:

  • Consider the pros and cons of discussing the issues - Parents must carefully consider how and when best to introduce their child's problems. Parents may be concerned about a teacher developing a bias or being misinformed. Some problems, particularly those that are health related, require up-front discussion. And for other children, such as those with learning problems, although remediation needs may be a matter of school record, parents should ensure the proper supports are implemented. A child's preference and participation should also be solicited with respect to more direct intervention. For example, some physically ill children welcome the chance to talk about personal experiences in class, whereas others prefer explaining their difference on a one-to-one basis.
  • Monitor the child's progress - New areas of concern may develop as the year progresses. Different teachers, different academic demands, changing social groupings can all affect the child's experience and adjustment. Assessing the transition requires gathering data from both the child and the teacher. Don't rely on one source of information. Each has his own perspective.
  • Develop the child's social skills - Having appropriate interpersonal skills is essential for enhancing one's social relationships and quality of life. Learning and practicing techniques suitable for children with differences helps them develop and maintain friendships. And friends can offer protective value, improving one's emotional outlook and functioning.

Understanding the child who is under stress from family issues

Children spend a great deal of their lives in school, away from home and family. However, they carry the effects of any personal stresses with them. It is commonplace for at least half of the children in a classroom to live in a home in which there is divorce or illness or some other issue of concern. Children are affected by events occurring around them in ways not readily obvious. Grades and peer interactions can be negatively impacted by stressful situations at home.

Helping the child who is under stress from family issues:

  • Coordinate systems - During a crisis or when the usual family structure is disrupted, it's important to let others know what will change. Providing alternative phone numbers, explaining different drop-off schedules, or alerting staff to a parent's decreased availability can allow others to reinforce the changes with the child and fill in the gaps where possible.
  • Identify supports - Parents may wish to inform selected staff, perhaps a guidance counselor, about the particular issue so they can keep an eye on the child and provide on-site help. Letting the child know the specific person identified as a source of support may also be appropriate. Having this knowledge makes the child feel more comfortable seeking assistance.
  • Maintain routines - Keeping to the child's regular schedule as much as possible provides stability, security and hope. The predictability can decrease the child's anxiety and help him feel in control of the situation.

General Tips for Preparation

  • Consider your child's age and stage of development - Keep in mind the typical concerns and issues confronting children at particular times in their lives. For example, most first graders need time to adjust to the demands of a full school day where they must sit still and wait a turn. High school-age students will be more concerned about being accepted by friends than about getting along with their parents. Thus some problematic issues are a routine part of growing up. Other issues may be specific to your child.
  • Involve the child in preparations - Enlisting the child's help in school preparations can help the child feel involved and more confident. Parents should guard against going overboard - decide how much to prepare and when to start the preparations according to the child and the issue. Preparing the second grader three weeks before school may be too soon, overly ambitious and counterproductive. But acquainting a new middle school student to the school route, school layout and neighborhood friends in the weeks before can ease beginning jitters. And don't forget to begin establishing the back-to-school routine (e.g. bedtime, decisions about homework time and after-school activities) with your child before the first day.
  • Understand and empathize with your child - Taking a child's fears, concerns, problems or point of view seriously is necessary for parents. Minimizing or dismissing a child's problems can make a child avoid the issue or feel embarrassed. Giving the issues importance, understanding the child's perspective and conveying concern are useful strategies.
  • Encourage and support child-focused solutions - Parents should avoid the tendency to rush in with the answers. A child may interpret a parent's protectiveness as a sign the child is incompetent. Talking together about potentially awkward situations or questions and finding solutions increases a child's confidence. Helping them develop and fine tune their own problem-solving strategies is preferred to giving them an adult version.
  • Decide what and how much information to communicate - Parents must consider the pros and cons of sharing information with educational staff. It is important to decide how much, and which details are essential to convey, and who it is essential to convey them to, based on the best interests of the child. For example, for the child taking Ritalin for ADHD, the decision to tell should be based on advice from the clinician, state requirements, medication schedule and parental wishes. Both parents and children should take into account their own preference for privacy and past strategies that have been helpful.
  • Have appropriate expectations - Parents, teachers and children should be realistic about their particular challenge and the criteria for success. If problems arise, it is best to reassess the situation, avoid blame, adjust expectations, modify interventions and develop new solutions. Also be aware that after the freedom of summer everyone needs time to adjust to the school schedule.
  • Establish good communication with school staff - Establishing a relationship with the adults who have their eyes and ears on your child during the school day is enormously helpful. Parents can gain particular insight into their child's progress from those people identified as being most knowledgeable about the problem. Both parents and teacher should strive for a collaborative relationship.
  • Monitor situations and intervene promptly - Evaluating a child's problems and changing the academic program are best accomplished as soon as possible. Parents and teachers should continually assess the degree to which a behavior or issue is interfering with learning or with peer interactions. For example, finding out early if the shy child has a social phobia or if the precocious child is gifted facilitates obtaining suitable intervention. Monitoring requires parent involvement in all aspects of a child's educational life - the academic, personal, emotional and social. However, both parents and educators have a responsibility for recognizing and helping the children within their care.
Updated September 2010