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Calming the Back-to-School Jitters

Get ready: the big day is coming. If you’re like many Dallas moms, August 27th is already circled on the calendar as the first day of school, but you and your kids may not know just how to approach it. Starting a new school year can be scary: new teacher, new expectations, different classmates, heavier workload. It’s understandable that most kids – and some parents – feel the jitters when fall rolls around. But sometimes the jitters turn into the shakes and before you know it, your child is worked into a worrying frenzy about the coming year.
Don’t let that happen. We’ve got some tips for helping your child get ready for school mentally.
Start Early
Allow your kids a little time to switch gears. Dr. Jeff Brown, a Harvard psychologist and co-author of The Winner’s Brain, recommends reestablishing a healthy sleep and meal routine about two weeks ahead of time. “We have a tendency in the summer to stay up later and snack more frequently rather than taking in full meals,” he says.
Enforce an earlier bedtime for your kids and wake them up at a reasonable hour. Get the meals back in check and make sure they’re getting plenty of proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains for brain optimization. “Getting back to a schedule makes it easier to monitor what your child is experiencing. You might not notice anything going on but once you’re back in a routine and something is off, you notice,” Brown says. And reestablishing a routine at home may calm nerves and better ease your child into the school year.
Walk the Walk
But the new routine should extend outside the home, as well. Nina McCabe, a seasoned principal at an award-winning elementary school, suggests familiarizing students with the routine of a typical school day. “Talk about what the first day of school will be like; share appropriate books that touch on the subject – the more a child knows about what he or she should expect, the less anxiety about a new situation.” (See sidebar below for book suggestions.)
Walk through a school day with your child. Practice walking to school or the bus stop. Point out interesting sites along the way so that it’s not so unfamiliar the first few weeks. Go play at the playground. Take advantage of any back-to-school activities such as an orientation or meet-the-teacher event.
Once you know who is in your child’s class, arrange play dates or meet at a park so your child knows some familiar, friendly faces. Some schools are willing to help parents organize summer play dates, particularly for kindergarteners, so kids can get to know some classmates before the first day.
Listen Carefully
Sometimes school jitters are more than just a mild case of nerves. If your child is having trouble sleeping or is experiencing panic attacks, crying jags or stomachaches, something deeper may be bothering her. Find a quiet moment and really listen to what she’s saying. “We think like adults but sometimes we need to think like a child,” says Dr. John Mayer, a child and family psychologist. “Try to look at the jitters and nerves through their eyes. Is it the school work or is it recess?”
Before offering reassurance, make sure you understand the problem. We may assume that he’s worried about math when really he’s scared about where to sit at lunch. Oftentimes kids fixate on a small aspect of school that we might overlook.
Brown agrees. “Find out if there is some unresolved issue from last year. Sometimes at the end of the year, people are ready to let it go. Make sure there is some closure. Are they dreading a certain subject? Was there a previous experience that made them uncomfortable such as a peer or a teacher? Do they know who is in their class? Are there any personality conflicts?”
McCabe also recommends that during the first week of school, parents spend some extra time with their children, especially after school. Family dinnertime can be a great opportunity to share thoughts concerning the new school year.
Play the Part Yourself
Above all, Mayer urges parents to act calm and appear confident even if that’s not how we’re feeling. “Parents need to play the role of staying calm, being organized and not getting hysterical at the last minute about the start of school,” he says. “Parental attitude is absolutely vital and huge in terms of calming a kid’s jitters. I would say that nothing is better than the parent’s attitude and approach.”
So before you try to inspire excitement about school with overenthusiastic pep talks, play it cool instead. Trying to muster a fake enthusiasm illuminates your own fears and insecurities. As parents we often bring our own baggage to our children’s situations, remembering our own troubles making friends, keeping up with class work or finding a seat at lunchtime. Rather than masking your fears with false bravado, it’s much better to appear calm and confident in your kids’ abilities and reassure them that they will be fine.
McCabe couldn’t agree more. “Remember, the nerves will almost always dissipate once a child acclimates to the new school year (and usually after the first day!) Love, reassurance, modeling a positive attitude and believing that ‘this too shall pass’ works well for all involved.”
A Bouquet of Sharpened Pencils
Finally, don’t discount the tried and true remedy: back-to-school shopping. Your spending doesn’t have to be extravagant, but there is something anticipatory about having a fun, new backpack filled with freshly sharpened pencils and smooth notebooks.
And buy her a new outfit for the first day of school – and don’t let her wear it until then – so that she has something special to look forward to. “We know it’s not all about appearance,” says Brown. “But for some kids, sometimes it is.”