Although long days splashing at the pool, sleeping in late, and sunny activities are what make summer so great, it can also be difficult for kids when the lazy days of summer come to an end. Going back to a strict schedule and routine can also make the first few weeks of school exhausting.

school transitions

There is no question that the transition to a new school year can be tough, especially if your child is transitioning to a brand new school. All children experience some level of anxiety when faced with new situations, and the start of a new school year can be a trigger for that stress. Here are several tips to help make school transitions easier for children and families.

Return to school routines a week before school starts. Probably one of the hardest adjustments for families used to sleeping in during the summer months is adjusting to early bedtimes and early mornings. It may not be fun to use the last week of summer to start school routines but helping children return to a normal sleep schedule at least a week before school will help ease that first day of school when they are already used to the routine.

Review after school rules and schedules. Go over after school rules to make sure the children remember what is expected. Remind them of any rules such as homework-first, after school snacks policy, having friends over, and so forth. Knowing what to expect can ease a great deal of frustration and stress. Make sure everyone is on the same page by having a calendar or schedule readily accessible. Children will feel less stressed when they know ahead of time what the day looks like.

**Edited to add Covid Policies as of August 2021**
Likely your child has not had to wear a mask or worry about a pandemic all summer but with cases on the rise again and a new variant, it can make transitions even harder for your child. If possible, see if you can have a virtual connection with the teacher, such as video calls on Zoom or Microsoft Teams before school actually starts. Also, keep open communication with the teacher and school on any questions or concerns you may have for the upcoming school year. Practice wearing a mask a week before going back to school (if your school requires it) to get back into the habit of wearing them for prolonged periods of time. The most important thing you can do is to stay calm. Parents may have fears about the pandemic but the more your anxiety shows, the more your child will pick up on that anxiety and be anxious themselves. Use a calm voice, with a relaxed face and body to let your child know that you wouldn’t leave them if the child were not safe and protected. 

Prepare for a teary goodbye. Goodbyes can be hard for both the student and the parent, and that’s OK! Reassure your child (and yourself) that you’re both going to have great days and that you will see each other later on. Like all of us, some children experience more intense anxiety when going through a transition like starting a new school year. It is so important to know that this anxiety is normal and that school staff are trained to help them cope with the challenges associated with these transitions.

Get school supplies. Spend some time making sure their school supplies are in order. Give your child as much control over their school supplies, backpack, and clothes as possible. Empower your children to choose the things that they feel comfortable with and excited about. That Power Rangers backpack might not be your first choice, but if it helps your child to feel comfortable, it’s worth it to make the back-to-school transition less stressful and more fun!

Make food preparations. Whether your child takes lunch to school or buys it there, make sure they have enough food to last them throughout the day. Part of adjusting to the school routine is the difference in meal times. Make sure they get a good breakfast and have enough food so they can focus on learning instead of when the next meal break is.

Attend any orientations offered. Most schools typically offer orientations for students before the school year starts which is a great time to meet your child’s teacher and familiarize yourself with their classroom and homework expectations. This can help empower families to feel confident in supporting both the teacher and their child for school year.

Get organized. Create places for backpacks, lunch boxes, and school papers to be kept. Knowing that there is a place for everything will help some kids transition easier because it allows them to take responsibility for their day. Mark important dates on the calendar and check that their school information is up to date. Go online and fill out as much information there to ease the process.

Familiarize your child with school surroundings. This is especially helpful if your child is starting school for the first time, or if they are attending a new school. Helping them become familiar with their future surroundings can eliminate some of the anxiety surrounding the unknown. If you are able, schedule a tour during the summer. Try to go by the school and point out the school’s surrounding areas such as the playground or route to school. This gives your child a visual reference on her first day.

Talk about any concerns. If your child has reservations about going back to school, talk them over. Answer any questions they might have about starting or going into the next grade. Sometimes children will feel anxious over what seems like a simple issue to you, however, it may be a big deal to your child. If you are able to discover what concerns your child may have ahead of time, you will be able to soften his fears by helping him understand what to expect.

Check your expectations. Understandably, parents want their children to do well in school. However, sometimes too much emphasis is put on where that child is at academically at the beginning of the year. These expectations may make your child more anxious or make them act out. Instead, let you child get acclimated to the new teacher, classmates, and environment. Then, bring any concerns to the teacher after school has started.

Foster responsibility. For younger children who are learning to be independent, tell them what will be expected of them at school and help them learn the things they will need to know. A fun way to do this is by playing school with them, reading books about school, or by just talking about what school will be like. For older children, they may need guidance on things like where to find their classes, how to read their school schedule or, if they drive, how to get to school and where to park.

Have a contingency plan. When a child gets sick or has to leave school all of a sudden, it is good to have a response plan in place. Making a plan, whether it is contacting a babysitter, taking time off work, or calling friends or family to come pick them up, can help put parents at ease as well as the child.

Don’t forget medications. If your children take medications during school hours or need it in certain situations, make sure the school nurse is aware and all the medications and doctor authorizations are on hand if need be.

Leave a love note. Writing a message of love and good wishes for their first day of school reminds children you are there for them during this time of transition. Some parents plan little surprises or treat their kids to something special to make the first day of school a positive experience.

Support your child’s relationship with her teacher. Kids who feel connected with their teacher are more ready to learn. Help to facilitate a positive relationship between your child and their teacher by talking about the teacher in a positive manner. If you have any concerns about your child’s first few weeks of school and are worried that they haven’t yet bonded with their teacher, make sure to send a note or call the teacher to hear their observations. The teacher will be able to provide feedback on how your child is doing in the classroom.

For kindergarten students:

Making the shift to public school after preschool is a big adjustment. The longer day, riding the school bus, or being more responsible for belongings can be difficult for some children. It is important to send children to school with some self-assurance, empathy, and self-help skills.

Help your child learn how to advocate for himself or herself. Your child needs to know how to say “I need to go to the bathroom”, “I feel sick”, or “I need help”. A good way to do this is through role-play. Ask your child what he thinks he should do if he feels sick at his desk at school, and help him come up with some words that he could use with his teacher. Help your child know what to do if another child is sad or scared; and help your child know what to do if another child is bullying or if help is needed with problem-solving.

Let your child know that you love him even when you are not present. The weeks before starting “big school” are the perfect time to pour love into your child’s heart. Tell your child things you admire about her: something your child did right that you noticed, a quality you see in your child, or a special memory. Read The Kissing Hand together. Your child, taking your love with her on the school bus and in the classroom, will have more confidence to handle daily challenges and also be able to be a kind friend to her classmates in the same challenges.

For middle school students:

You blinked and now your baby is ready for middle school! Where did the time go? Starting middle school isn’t just nerve-wracking for you; it’s usually an anxious time for your kids, too. So, how can you make the transition from elementary school to middle school easy and stress-free?

Take advice from other peers. First, let your child learn about middle school from another kid. Ask a babysitter or older neighbor to give your child the inside scoop on middle school. Hearing what to expect from a peer counts doubly compared to adult wisdom. And peers are going to know what is important to your child when it comes to middle school.

Be well-prepared. Another way to help ease the transition to middle school is to give your kids lots of information and skills so they feel extra prepared from the get-go. If possible, learn the layout of the school. See where the lockers, gym, bathrooms, and lunchroom are located. If you get your child’s schedule, figure out where each of his or her classes will be. Have your middle schooler try the combination on his locker several times so that even if he is nervous on his first day, at least he knows how to open his locker to get to his things.

For high school students:

The first day of high school can be equal parts exciting and terrifying. New classmates, new courses, new teachers, and new expectations can all be points of anxiety for students moving from middle to high school. Even if the change doesn’t seem drastic, parents should anticipate an adjustment period for their student.

Do a walk-through. Already mentioned above, a tour of the school or orientation is a good way to ease anxiety for the first day. Again, make sure your teen can open his locker and knows where his classes are and how far each one is from the next. High schools can be big and sometimes a class may be on the other side of the school. Knowing this will help your student be able to plan better for the first day.

Advocate involvement. High school isn’t just full of new people and new classes, it’s also full of new opportunities. Encourage your child to join a sport, club, or activity. It will help with making friends and ease the transition process. Teens who are engaged in extracurricular activities tend to excel socially and academically.

Avoid warnings. Your teen is already stressed about getting good grades, so reminding them of how hard high school is going to be will only make things worse. Instead of intimidating your teen by saying things such as, “You’re going to have to do this differently or else you’re going to fail,” parents should use positive language such as, “I know you’re going to be able to handle this.”

For college students:

One of the hardest tasks for new college students is to understand the way the university will differ from high school. It can be a shock to students when they discover that no one is going to make sure they go to class, tell them when to go to bed, or tell them when or how much to study.

Prepare your student. Again, preparation is key to helping your young adult transition to college life. If you haven’t already toured the school, schedule a visit, preferably when school is still in session. Talk to existing students to get a realistic picture of what college life is really like. Walk around and identify all the buildings relevant to your student. Tour the library, student union, and dorms, as well as any buildings related to class schedule. If the college is in a new city, take time to tour areas of the town your child may need to know such as gas stations (if they drive) or bus routes. Talk with your primary physician about doctors in the new city and make sure your college student has this information.

What to do if your child isn’t transitioning well:

After your child has started a new school, you want to be on the watch for signs of stress and anxiety. Look for these signs that your child may need more help adjusting to their new school:

  • Repeatedly refusing to go to school
  • Throwing tantrums whenever school is mentioned
  • Recurring meltdowns when you try to bring them to school
  • Suffering separation anxiety
  • Needing you more than they have in recent months or years
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits

If you notice your children are showing signs of poor transitioning, it’s important to talk to them about it, and to meet with their teachers and administrators so you can work to target the sources of your child’s discomfort. School guidance counselors and therapists can also help with difficult transitions. The school may be able to pair your child with a “buddy” like a built in friend who is comfortable in the school already.