There’s more to back-to-school season than snagging the latest notebooks, bookbags, and trendy jackets and jeans.

A new routine, new teachers, and new schools signal a big adjustment period for some students.

“Anxiety can be associated with the unknown, such as what will the teacher this year be like, what friends will be in my class, where will my classroom be, and likely other worries can pop into children’s minds,” said Cindy Smith, director of the Children’s Emotions Lab at Virginia Tech and an expert in child emotional development, parent-child interaction, and parenting behaviors. “As parents, understanding how children are feeling can be so important to helping them through school transitions.”

Adults should be especially sensitive to changes in their students’ behavior during this time of the year.

“Younger children are not likely to be able to label the emotions that they are feeling,” Smith said. “Anxiety about a new school year could look like an upset stomach or irritability about things that are not even related to school. Older children and teens might not openly express how they are feeling about the transition to a new school year. Parents may not think that the children are experiencing emotions because the emotions are not being openly displayed.”

Smith shares some ways that parents and guardians can help children ease the stress of returning to the back-to-school routine.

  • Visit the school or classroom before the year starts, which helps children to visualize what their days might look like.
  • Arrange a playdate or meet up with other children in their school.
  • Read books with children about going to school and discuss questions as you read together. For families with more than one child, having the older child read with you can also give opportunities for modeling for the younger child and for the older child to express how they are feeling too.
  • Talk with students about what goals they have for the upcoming year to help them get excited. Also, families can talk about what their children might learn in the upcoming year.
  • Any activity done with children can provide opportunities to talk about how they are feeling about school, even if the activity has nothing to do with school. Having time dedicated solely to your students shows them that you are interested in what they might need and are there to support them. Make it a no-phones time to avoid distractions.
  • Practice the routine of getting up and ready for school a few days before the year starts.
  • Make sure children have their school supplies ready for the first day.
  • Plan a fun activity after the first day of school, such as getting ice cream. This activity gives children something fun to anticipate.

“Always remember that children take their cues from the adults around them,” Smith said. “If parents are showing excitement about going back to school, then children will pick up on that excitement.”

About Smith

Cindy Smith is a professor and associate department head in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Virginia Tech. She also directs the Children’s Emotions Lab, a research space for faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students to study young children’s emotional development and caregiver support.

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