For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Learning and School

Beating the Back to School Blues: How parents can help kids calm nerves and start the school year strong

by David J. Marks, PhD

Boy with School Books

Each year roughly 70 million children in the United States make the transition back school. Many kids embrace the return to classes as an opportunity to reconnect with friends and extend their knowledge of the world around them. Other youngsters, particularly those with academic, behavioral, or social or emotional challenges, may approach the return to school with trepidation or even loathing.

Whether your child is just starting school or well into his or her teens, some back to school jitters are normal and to be expected. In keeping with the notion that prevention is the best medicine, the techniques outlined below may help families feel more prepared and diminish back-to-school anxieties.

Consider a visit

Before the first day of school, try to arrange for kids to take a tour, meet their teacher (if possible), and see the classrooms, playground, and other facilities. Being exposed to the school prior to the start of classes may be especially helpful for children who will be entering a new academic environment, making the move from grade school to junior high, for example. A tour can be a good way to dispel misconceptions and desensitize your child's fears so that the first day is less anxiety provoking.

Normalize the experience

Remind your child that back to school fears are very common and many children have similar experiences before the first day back. In fact, teachers recognize that students often feel this way and many go out of their way to make kids as comfortable as possible. Sharing your own experiences, including how you managed back to school jitters or certain social or academic challenges when you were a child may be especially helpful for older kids and adolescents.

Refresh memories

Remind your child about prior positive experiences and accomplishments from previous school years (or from nursery school or day care if your child is very young). This may include returning home after the first day of school in great spirits because he or she had such a good time. 

Establish routines and manage expectations

A written schedule, enhanced with pictures or graphics for younger children, establishes clear expectations and models effective organization and time management skills. Along with your child, formulate a list of necessary school supplies and materials, clothing items, etc. that she will need to start the new school year. If your child has some choices and can accompany you to pick out supplies it may help drum up excitement about school.

Talk to your child about leisure activities that may occur during or after the school day.  When you remind a child that portions of the school day are fun, or that she has something to look forward to after school, it may help counteract worries. It may also help to arrange get-togethers with classmates during the first few weeks of school, to rekindle friendships.

Gradually introduce more structure

In preparation for the start of school, work with your child to get back into a more structured mindset. This may include setting the alarm to wake up at a regular time each morning, establishing dedicated study (e.g., reading) time, substituting flash cards or coloring for television, and instituting earlier bedtimes. For younger children, especially preschoolers, parents may wish to hold “mock school” days, in which they assume the role of the teacher and discuss school rules.

Model effective coping and problem-solving

Many times kids don't do what you say, they do what you do, and that notion is especially applicable here. Children look to their parents to be the proverbial port in a storm and help them manage their anxieties. This involves validating your child's fears, responding calmly and supportively to his or her concerns, and whenever possible, working collaboratively to identify healthy solutions. 

It also means that parents and caregivers should take a moment to think about their own behavior around back to school time. If this season is anxiety inducing for you, your children may very well pick up on and reflect back your own nervousness, sadness or other feelings. Take a minute to think about why this time of year might be causing stress or other emotional responses in you, and without being dishonest, do your best to shield your child from feelings that might make going back to school less positive for her.

Open the lines of communication

Establish early and ongoing contact with your child's teachers and arrange for check-ins at regular intervals. This will provide parents with invaluable feedback regarding their child's academic, behavioral, and social-emotional development and enable both sides to address any issues in a timely manner, as well as allowing for an open exchange of ideas.  By working together, parents and teachers can reinforce each other and assist children in ways that are constructive and consistent across settings.

Anticipate the needs of children with special needs

For youngsters with academic, behavioral, or social-emotional challenges, work collaboratively with your child's school-based support team to ensure that all resources are in place. This may include adjunctive services, such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, or remedial instruction, as well as accommodations like extended time on tests. Knowing that children will be supported in areas in which they need it most may provide children—and their parents—with reassurance.

When to seek help

Although back to school fears or anxieties often fade away in the first days or weeks after returning to classes, some children may feel persistent discomfort, which can manifest as difficulties with sleep, stomachaches, decreased appetite, or acting out. If these or other changes in behavior continue well into the second month of school or significantly detract from a child's ability to function, it may be time to seek the help of a mental health professional.