While somewhere, somehow, there are families happily waltzing back into their school-year routine, most face these first few weeks with a healthy dose of anxiety. “The start of school means the return to a more rigid schedule … the return of homework. In essence, it’s about change, and change is something that is hard for most people,” says Joe Bruzzese, author of Parents' Guide to the Middle School Years
Change is most dramatic for children starting a new chapter -- kindergarten, middle school, a move to a new school district. But even returning to what’s familiar can rattle kids. “A child who struggled with math during the previous year can approach the new year with a good deal of anxiety. Kids who have had a rough time with their friends at the end of the year may feel like, ‘Here we go again,’” says Diane Peters Mayer, a therapist in Doylestown, Pa., and author of Overcoming School Anxiety: How to Help Your Child Deal With Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries.
So how can you help? First, be calm -- even if your child isn’t. Then, try these tips for a smooth ride into the new school year:
Simplify your mornings
Scrambling to get your kids -- and yourself -- out the door can make for a pretty frenetic scene. “It’s crucial for parents to look at their mornings and ask themselves how they can make them better,” says Peters Mayer. Do all you can the night before -- make sure backpacks are packed, school forms are signed, lunches are made. You can even ask younger kids to help you set the table for breakfast the next morning. Equally important, get yourself ready the night before so you can connect with your kids in the morning. If you have young children struggling with separation anxiety, it’s the perfect time to go over with them what they can expect for the day, and what Mom and Dad will be doing too.
Create a smart yet flexible after-school routine
Sit down with kids and hammer out a schedule that works for all of you. Doing homework right after school may sound good to you. But some kids really need time to decompress, so you could work it out that they play at the school playground for an hour before they begin their homework. “Also, help your child figure out where she’ll do her schoolwork,” says social worker Connie Hammer, a PCI Certified Parent Coach based in Maine. “If she wants a study area to call her own, have fun setting it up with her.” Some kids prefer to be closer to where the action is when they do their homework … and that can work, says Peters Mayer. “As long as homework is completed, be flexible. It shows them you are open to their ideas and teaches kids to be able to say ‘Yeah, I can do this,’” adds Mayer.
Reach out at school
There’s no need to wait for parent-teacher conferences or even back-to-school night to meet with your child’s teacher and get the lay of the land. “Much of the anxiety kids feel is their uncertainty about what their new teachers expect of them: ‘What is she going to want, how is she going to grade me?’” explains Hammer. If your child is struggling with significant anxiety or is having social difficulties or separation issues, you may also want to meet with the guidance counselor. “The more the school knows, the better it will be for the child,” says Hammer.
Keep the lines of communication open
As kids get older, they often clam up -- especially if they are struggling socially or are having a problem with their grades. “Typical parent questions like ‘How was your day?’ generally get a less-than-informative response because they are just too general. Kids don’t really even know how to respond,” says Mayer. Instead, try asking specific questions that show you’re interested in what they’re learning and doing. And once they start talking, just listen. “They may begin to open up about things you didn’t expect,” says Hammer. “Let them know: ‘I believe you can do this. I know we can solve this problem together.’”
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