The school year is fast approaching, and kids of all ages often have mixed feelings about the end of summer. WellPower special education manager Carly Keeshen, vocational counselor Dennis Vega and program manager of WellPower’s PLAY program Heidi Whitney weigh in on tips for parents, kids, youth and young adults on managing mental health and well-being as school begins.
When children ages birth through five begin school or childcare, the transition can often be harder on parents than little ones. This is a time when babies, toddlers and kindergartners are just starting to understand and adapt to a new routine, so creating predictable schedules can help prepare the whole family for what to expect in a different environment.
“Parents need to be aware of their own feelings about transitioning their child from being at home to starting school or childcare,” says Whitney. “Leading with calm support can influence children in a great way, and help them prepare to begin a new school year, or even start school for the first time.
“I often recommend using pictures and simple words to describe routines and schedules for the birth to five age range. This method helps little ones with predictability, which can ease fears about the unknown as they transition into a school or childcare environment for the first time.”
For elementary and middle-schoolers, some of the biggest challenges often present as fear of change and lack of confidence in the coming school year. Kids may be concerned about what to expect from their teachers, not sure where their classroom is, nervous about new schedules or simply unsure how to navigate moving up a grade level.
“The best thing parents can do is to work together as a family unit and prep, prep, prep for the upcoming year,” says Keeshen. “When you see the back-to-school supplies getting stocked on store shelves, that’s a great indicator that it’s time to talk to your kids about what to expect in the new school year.
“I recommend starting by discussing schedules and helping your kids know what they have choice and control over when the school year begins. Let them pick weather-appropriate clothing, have a voice in their lunch for the day or bring a personal notebook or folder to school. That can give kids a feeling of control over their days when everything else is chosen for them.”
High school and college-age students may have similar worries about the changes a new year will bring, as well as nerves around the workload and time management.
“Teens and young adults should try to figure out who their support people are at school,” advises Vega. “School counselors, school psychologists, administrators, teachers and coaches are all great adults to have around for answering questions and learning about important resources.”
Get the whole family involved
The first step to calming anxiety about the coming year is to get the whole family involved in prepping and planning. Parents, caregivers and students of all ages can work together in age-appropriate ways to create feelings of responsibility and ownership over the coming year. Check out these tips for each age group:
Birth to five (kindergarten age): Keep explanations about the changes to your family schedule really simple and clear – using pictures of the morning routine can support little ones in understanding what to expect. During drop-off, having a special “goodbye” moment like a song, a handshake, a goodbye hug or a comfort item (if your childcare center or school allows them) may help both children and parents with the transition into the school day. As children transition into childcare or a new classroom, support feelings that may come up by naming feelings, talking about how emotions feel in our bodies and reading books about feelings. Help young children understand a range of feelings (happy, mad, nervous, unsure, excited, etc.) and that we sometimes feel more than one emotion at a time, like excited and nervous.
Additionally, reach out to your student’s teachers or caregivers and stay in active communication about your child’s day. Here are a few resources that our PLAY team recommends for more information: 13 Tips for Starting Preschool | NAEYC and 11 Ways to Help Children Say Goodbye | NAEYC.
Elementary school (kindergarten to 5th grade): Help elementary students with the transition back to school by starting the prep work early. Talk with your student about what to expect in the coming year, what your schedule will look like and start practicing for the new routine. A few weeks before summer ends, do some trial runs of the school-day morning routine — practice getting up on time, getting dressed for the day, packing lunches (although did you know kids get free lunch this year?) and making the commute to school. If available, take a tour of the school and meet your student’s teacher together. Additionally, giving your student age-appropriate control over decisions about their day (such as outfit, lunch or after-school activities) can smooth the transition from summer’s freedom to school’s more rigid routine.
Middle school (6th to 8th grade): Just like the elementary school tips, prep your student a few weeks before school begins and practice your routine. At this age, it’s also a good idea to have conversations with your student about social dynamics and friendships as they navigate their pre-teen and early teenage years. Providing your student with space to be vulnerable about their feelings and fostering open communication can help your middle-schooler navigate tricky developmental changes and increased workload/expectations.
High school (9th to 12th grade): Supporting your high schooler may look like modeling effective time management skills, holding space for ever-changing social lives and understanding that increased workloads may lead to increased stress and anxiety. Helping your high schooler identify key support people and resources can ease some pressure. Additionally, remind your high schooler that, while extracurriculars can be great ways to strengthen friendships and build skills, they should be mindful of burnout caused by overextending themselves.
College and post-secondary education: Parents and caregivers looking to support their college-age student can best help by letting their student know that they’re always there for them, and providing help or advice as requested. At this age, students are finding a whole new level of independence. Parents and caregivers can be a safe place to turn when their student needs that emotional reassurance. From a practical standpoint, offering help with paperwork and administrative tasks can relieve stress for students.
If you or your student are struggling with the back-to-school transition, or simply looking for support in other areas of life, WellPower is here to help. Contact our Access Center by calling (303) 504-7900 or visit us online at wellpower.org/access to learn more.