A new school year is about to begin. For those of you who send your kids to private or public schools, this means your child has a multitude of changes to adjust to in the coming weeks. Some children and teens do well with changes and even look forward to them. For some, however, each and every change can trigger a sense of unease and even anxiety. Let’s look at some strategies to reduce the stressors that can come with adjusting to change (even the happy changes).
New sleep/wake schedule:
If your child is the type that stays up later in the evening and/or sleeps later in the morning during summer, then you may want to plan ahead (about 2-3 weeks before school starts) by sending them to bed a little bit earlier each night and also waking them slightly earlier each morning.
Why? By preparing your child to go to bed and wake earlier for school, before the school year starts, you are reducing the fatigue that happens when sleep routines are adjusted and altered too quickly. Fatigue adds to stress levels, and a tired brain and body is less able to take in all the instruction and complexities of paying attention. On the contrary, when your child has a good sleep routine and is better rested, she’s better able to keep up with the demands of the school day.
Transportation to and from school:
If you drive your child to school every day, and the route has not changed, then your child is likely well prepared for the drive to school. However, if you have not driven that route in a while, it might help to do so before the first day of school just to be prepared for any detours or changes ahead of time. If this feels like over-preparing, consider this--some kids get anxious more easily than others. If you have an anxiety-prone child the practice drive does at least 2 things: 1) re-familiarizes the child to the drive to and from school--this creates a sense of normalcy and routine 2) on the off chance that something drastic has changed along that route, you will have time to manage the stress of that before school starts. Here’s an example-- I once worked with a kid who rode to school with his parents. On the first day of school they drove past a house that had been damaged by fire. They had not seen the damaged house yet because they had not driven that route since the last day of school. The child, who was already nervous about the first day, arrived to school in a worried state because he was upset about the burned house and then had worries all day (and days after) about his own home burning down. This is an extreme example, but for those of you with anxiety-prone kids, you probably understand how a practice drive to and from school could save some worry later on.
If your child has a new bus route:
Other helpful suggestions:
New school, classroom, and/or teacher:
In general, a regular routine during the school year can help reduce anxiety for kids overall. A regular routine means a routine that is predictable for your child, i.e. the child knows dinner is at 6pm each night and bedtime is at 8pm. If you’re the type of person who hates routine (I’m one of them) this can feel challenging and even counter-intuitive. However, for kids who are susceptible to anxiety, the routine is a predictable backbone of their day. The routine becomes structure that helps them manage the rest of the day’s craziness. Everything else may feel chaotic to them but they know, if nothing else, dinner is at 6pm and bedtime is at 8pm.
Last, your child is heading back to school with kids they haven't seen in a while, or haven't met before. Remind your child that sometimes kids return to school with a different appearance and/or new life experiences under their belt-- this can be anything from noticeable changes ( i.e. a radically different hairstyle) to ones the child cannot necessarily "see" (i.e. the child has experienced a tragic loss over the summer). Encourage your child to treat him or herself with kindness and to extend that kindness to others as well for a smoother start the school year.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling