Take a Behavioral Pulse™
Starting School Right

By Hilda F. Besner, Ph.D.

The beginning of school is met with many different emotions – excitement to reconnect with old friends, dread at the thought of homework, tests, etc. and sometimes relief by parents that there will be some down time without having to continually plan for activities, play dates, etc. So what steps can help ease a child’s transition from summer to classroom?

For very young children that are beginning school for the first time:

  • Explain what your child might expect from his new school. Talk about some of the activities that might occur, such as: coloring, making new friendships, learning new things, or having story time.
  • Ask your child how he feels about beginning school and let him know that you are excited for him to go. Soothe any anxieties he may have by reassuring him that he will be okay.
  • If your child is feeling nervous about going, identify something positive that he can do that might make it easier for him.
  • Let your child know that you will be there to pick him up after school or after care and to hear about all his new adventures of the day. If your child is going to go to after care after school, explain that and when and who will be picking him up. Remind him that if he needs anything during the day, his teacher will be there to help and he should talk to her.
  • If you are not going to be able to pick your child up from school or after care, let him know exactly who will be picking him up and where he is to meet the person who is getting him. Reassure him where you will meet him later that day.
  • Help your child pick out what outfit he will wear to school from the evening before and have him lay out all of his clothes. If he is taking a backpack, have him prepare this as well.
  • Try to begin a more consistent bed time a few days before school begins so that it will be easier for him to get started and in his new school routine once school starts.

For older children:

  • Discuss you and your child’s expectations for the upcoming school year. Address what he is looking forward to and what he may be concerned about. If your child had some difficulties the previous school year, identify what some of these challenges were and try to develop a game plan for helping your child have a more positive school year. If you are stuck in coming up with a plan, discuss this with your child’s teacher, school counselor or a psychologist.
  • If your child has apprehensions and fears, discuss his feelings and help him learn to manage his anxieties so it doesn’t stand in his way.
  • Also, identify the things that went well with your child the previous school year and see if you can replicate some of these things. If your child enjoyed playing sports, then see if he can continue doing this during the current school year.
  • Have your child identify several things he is looking forward to this school year and help him attain some of these things.
  • Develop a consistent routine for your child so he can begin the school year feeling as good as he can about himself. Set up a specific place for him to complete homework and study. Make sure he has adequate supplies and materials so he will not lose time searching for these.
  • If your child has difficulty with disorganization, help him organize his work space and time.
  • Develop a schedule for when he will do homework, do after school activities, chat on the phone or online with friends, and have down time to just be quiet or chill. Make sure this schedule includes sufficient time for sleep and play. Use a calendar or school planner to help him keep track of his schedule.
  • Try to get your child into a regular bedtime routine as well as a morning routine, which should include time for eating breakfast instead of eating in the car on the way to school or the bus stop. Maintaining consistency will make it easier for your child to be successful.
  • Have your child get into the routine of laying his clothes for school out from the night before and putting his backpack together with his books, papers, assignments, and other needed items, such as clothes or equipment for after school activities.
  • When your child returns home from his first few days of school, make a point of listening to whatever he has to say and focus on the positives of the stories he relates. If your child is dissatisfied with his teacher or the other students in his class, help him develop a different attitude by pointing out the positives of what he has related. Explain that many new situations may produce some anxiety because it is new and help him try to find some things he can do to make him feel better. He may need to learn to be patient and reexamine his expectations. Tell him that things should get easier as he spends more time in school.
  • Developing a sense of humor can often help students learn to ease their anxiety. Help your child identify some things he can do when he begins to feel anxious or upset.
  • Build your child’s self-confidence by letting him know that you believe that he will be fine in school and you know he will be okay. Sometimes when children feel that others believe in them, they are able to begin believing in themselves. Provide him with several self-statements he can make during the school day, such as, "Things are going to be fine." Or "I’m going to be okay.".
  • Help your child build a stronger connection with his teacher and classmates. He can do this by reaching out to another student or his teacher by asking questions or offering to help when others ask for help. Consider inviting another classmate over for a play date, which might help your child feel he is developing a friend in his class.

If your child is going to a new school:

  • Visit the school before the first day of school and walk around the campus to help him become more familiar with the new environment. Make sure he will know where the bathroom, the cafeteria, the drop off/pick up points, the main office are and any other place that is important for him to feel more secure. When possible, if you know what classroom he will be assigned to, visit this classroom and have him look in the door/window or sit in the classroom to help him become more comfortable in his new surroundings.
  • If possible, see if the school can help identify some other children in his grade who may live in your neighborhood that will be attending the same school. Introduce him to this person so he might know one person before he walks in the door the first day.
  • If your child comes home and is upset and refusing to go to school, don’t give in. Maintain your routine and help your child find ways of making the next day better. Reassure him you are there to provide support and together you will find a way to help him find school a pleasant place to be. If necessary, let his teacher or the school counselor know how your child is feeling and enlist their assistance in helping make your child’s transition to school a more positive experience.

With your guidance, your child can have a wonderful school year and a great school attitude.