Transitions are always a little scary. And even though your child will eventually go through year after year of back-to-school, they’ll probably always feel some first day of school nerves. Post-pandemic especially, anxiety among students returning to school skyrocketed. All students have spent at least some of the last two-and-a-half school years remote, or hybrid, or balancing mask mandates and sudden school closures. Maybe this fall is their first time really back in a school building.
But with your help, your child can be reminded that not only are these nerves normal, but also that school can be really exciting. A new school year affords them the opportunity to make and spend time with friends; to learn something new; to delve into their passions; to grow in their independence.
Knowing this, something that’s very important among children returning to school is a stable routine.
“The pandemic reinforced and emphasized our need for routine — because it broke up our routines so violently,” Georgetown Psychology’s Molly Dana, MSW said. “Let’s renormalize our routines as much as possible as we learn to live with the pandemic. Establishing a routine is going to be very important in how we create our new normal.”
Here are some tips on how to set up and maintain a school routine as a family to help ease your young child into the school year. It’s never too late to start:
What comes first?
When your kid comes home from school, what is the first thing that happens? This choice may seem minor or always up-in-the-air, but it can be beneficial, especially for younger children, to lay out a general guide for what happens upon your child’s arrival home from school.
If your child arrives tired or if their mind is still running from the school day, maybe first comes snack time or some time to rest. Maybe it’s time to unpack their backpack and lay out their to-do list for the day. Maybe it’s time for catching up between parent and child – perhaps you ask them about their day, or one new thing they learned, or something they’re proud of.
No matter what it is, make sure your child has adequate time to recharge, reenergize and rest, because what comes next is… homework time!
When it’s time to sit down for homework, with younger kids, it’s important to help alleviate some of the academic stress that may be weighing on them. One way to ease some of that anxiety is to remind your child that they are not completely alone when it comes to homework and academic stress.
Many times, kids will take on the stress of homework and academics independently – but that is a lot of stress for a child. It can be beneficial for a child to know that their parents have their back when things get difficult or stressful. That doesn’t mean you’re answering problems or guiding them through the homework; but it can mean that you are someone they can reliably turn to as a source for help — whether it’s for guidance on organizing their study schedule or understanding what a question is asking.
If your child is really struggling to understand, that may be a time to connect with your child’s teacher to understand further how your child is doing in class.
Organize, organize, organize
One thing that can derail the adjustment back to school is a lack of organization. Your child — and yourself — may be juggling all sorts of new changes and activities: There’s homework and school projects, after-school activities like sports practice or rehearsal, playdates and hang-outs with friends. It can be hard to keep up.
It’s possible to infuse some organization and positive predictability into your lives. Your child should have an idea about what is coming up this evening, week, and even big events in the coming month. It’s impossible to keep all that information in anyone’s head, so it can be great to keep a big calendar posted up on the wall with the week’s events and to-do’s big and small. Your child should, and may love to, play a role in building out this schedule.
To organize each coming evening, your child should mentally or even physically list out any homework or other to-do items that need to be completed that night. If there’s a project due the following day or week, make sure they mentally note that too so they can plan what progress must be made incrementally.
For neurodivergent individuals, sometimes visual schedules for the day can be extra helpful. Using erasable markers, or movable task cards, or a cross-off checklist, these schedules can list out tasks that can be completed — anything from brushing their teeth to starting their homework to packing their backpack for the next day.
Open line of communication
It’s important to establish a time and space for open communication about any concerns your child may have. For school children, this might include social concerns, academic concerns, or any other personal issues they’re grappling with.
Without a created open space, your child may feel they can only come to you with academic concerns. Instead, they should feel any issues can come to the forefront and be the topic of a conversation — maybe that is a misunderstanding or conflict with a peer, or a worry about a teacher, or anxiety about eating at the cafeteria or going outside to play.
As a parent, signal that you are ready to listen with understanding and empathy, and without condition.
The child can lead the conversation. If the issue seems small to you as a parent, try hearing out the child as it may feel like an outsized problem to them.
Leading up to the start of school and during the school year, talk through the difficulties and stresses. Validate their back-to-school stresses, rather than dismissing or diminishing them, even if it’s with positive intentions. You can tell them something like, “This is a big change and I understand that you might be nervous!” Then, you can move to reassurance.