After a summer of sleeping in or doing things on their time, the alarm bell announcing that first day of school can be a rude awakening for children and teens. Whether they’re an anxious new kindergartener or a confident senior, heading back to school signals a time of transition: new classes, new teachers, new schedules, and a new social scene.
CHOC experts offer some ways for parents to make the change from summer to school a little easier for their kids.
Normalizing first-day nerves
The first day of school can be crazy. New kids wander around in circles. Lockers won’t open. The school nurse needs your child’s medical records. They forgot their gym shorts. Freshmen are running in all directions, looking for their homerooms.
How can you help your child handle the nervousness of the first day of school? If your child is headed to a new school, try to visit before classes begin. Explore any areas of particular interest, such as the gym, library, or science labs.
The first day is also the time to bring in school supplies and paperwork. It can help to pack your child’s backpack the night before school starts they are not scrambling at the last minute looking for what you need. After packing basic supplies (such as notebooks, pens, pencils, etc.), find any school forms sent over the summer: vaccination (shot) records, permission slips, and class schedules.
Now for the perfect first-day-of-school outfit. The key is to encourage your child to wear what makes them feel good, whether it’s a brand-new outfit or a comfy old sweater. If you got your child some new shoes for school, have them try them out a few days beforehand to make sure their feet won’t be hurting before the end of the day.
Managing both positive and negative emotions
New place, new routine = new emotions.
It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous on the first day of school. Getting back to the school routine and adjusting to new workloads takes some getting used to after a long summer break. If your child feels nervous or anxious, help them think back to some previous “first days.” Everything probably settled down pretty quickly once they got into the routine.
Meeting new people or getting reacquainted with classmates can feel like a lot, especially if they are a shy or reserved type. Start small: If large groups make your child nervous, have them try saying hello to one or two new people a day, or ask new people to sit with them in the cafeteria.
If your child still feels uncomfortable after a few days, talk to the school counselor, a favorite teacher, or someone else you both trust about how they feeling and what you can do. But give your child some time — most problems adjusting to school are only temporary.
Lunchtime strategies for kids starting back to school
What’s everyone’s favorite period? Lunch, what else? But with foods like tacos, pizza, or cheeseburgers staring your in the face at school when they are hungry, it can be hard to make healthy choices.
Here are some tricks to choosing foods that will keep your child focused and active throughout the day — as well as help them grow and develop throughout the school year:
- Get a copy of the menu. If the cafeteria provides a weekly or monthly menu, check it out. Knowing what’s on the menu puts you in control: You can pick and choose which days your child wants to buy lunch and when they want to bring their own.
- Think energy. Some foods are better choices than others for maintaining energy during the day. Choose low-fat proteins, like chicken, beans, or low-fat yogurt and add lots of fruits and veggies to your child’s meal. They’ll provide the vitamins and minerals you need and the energy to get through the day. Foods with a lot of simple carbohydrates (like sugary snacks, donuts, or french fries) may give your child a quick rush of energy, but it’s not sustainable. And that means they’ll be left wanting more soon after you eat. The same is true of drinks filled with caffeine or sugar. You don’t have to cut these out entirely — just enjoy them in moderation.
- Pack good snacks. It’s hard to concentrate or absorb new knowledge without a well-fed mind and body. So pack healthy snacks, like carrot sticks or trail mix, to manage hunger between classes. This will keep your child going and help them avoid overeating later.
How to help your child if they feel stressed
School may have seemed simpler for your children when they were in previous grades. Everyone told them where to go, what classes to take, and how to finish their homework. As they get older, things might be different for your kids and they need to be more independent about their schoolwork and schedules.
Here are some ways to encourage your kids to stay in control to avoid feeling stressed out:
- Plan ahead. Get a wall calendar or personal planner. Mark the dates of midterms, finals, and other tests. Note the due dates of term papers, essays, and other projects as they are assigned. List any other time commitments, like basketball practice or play rehearsals. When their calendar starts to fill, help your kids learn to say no to other activities until things calm down.
- Stay ahead. If your child starts lagging and feeling frustrated, let their teachers know. It’s better to get help early than to wait and have them think they can ace the final if they spend a few nights cramming. Almost everyone struggles with a particular subject or class. Have your child ask their teacher for extra help after class. Taking a few minutes to address the problem right away can save time later, and if your child’s teacher knows that they’re struggling with something, they’re likely to be more understanding of the situation.
- Listen up. Paying attention in class can pay off in the long run. Sure, it’s often easier said than done, but actively listening and taking notes during lectures can make recalling information easier when it comes time to study and remember things.
- Take notes. If your child take notes, encourage them to review them before class begins (or while studying for an exam), so they can ask a teacher to go over anything they don’t understand. It can also be helpful for kids to go over notes with a friend after class — as long as they’re confident your friend really grasps the material!
What if my child misses a day or two…or more?
Nearly everyone gets sick at one time or another. If your child is out sick, ask their teachers or friends if you can collect any notes, assignments or homework.
If they’re out for more than a day or two, have them do a little work every day if they feel up to it to keep from falling behind. If their teachers post assignments and notes online, ask if they will accept emailed homework. Then have them be prepared to make up assignments and tests when they return.
If your child doesn’t feel well enough to keep up with their classes, that’s OK. It’s more important to take care of them. Again, a good relationship with teachers helps them be more understanding and then they can help your child catch up when they return to school.
What else can help children ease back to school?
Here are some more things that can help put your child be set up for success at school:
Eating a good breakfast.
The old saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is never more true than when you’re going to school. Students are more alert and do better in class if they eat a good breakfast.
Getting enough sleep.
Kids need at least 8½ hours of sleep each night to feel rested. Sleep deprivation can lead students to fall asleep in class and can also make it hard to concentrate. It can be more productive to get the sleep they need than it is to stay up late cramming: Studies found that students who got enough sleep before a math test were nearly three times more likely to figure out the problem than those who stayed up all night. Try to have your child go to bed at the same time each night, and don’t let them sleep too late on the weekend!
Utilizing their time at school.
If your kids do more at school, they’ll have less to do at home. Encourage your child to take advantage of those times during the school day when they’re not in class: Review notes, go to the library or computer lab, get a headstart on their homework, or research that big term paper. They’ll be thankful later while they’re hanging out with friends or relaxing and their classmates are stuck at home cramming!
One of the best ways for your child to make friends and learn their way around is by joining school clubs, sports teams, and activities. Even if they can’t kick a 30-yard field goal or sing a solo, have them get involved in other ways. They can attend a school play, help with a bake sale, or cheer on friends at a swim meet — it’ll help your child feel like a part of things.
School is a time to make friends and try new things. But it’s also a place to learn skills like organization and decision-making that will come in handy for the rest of your child’s life.
Get more expert health advice delivered to your inbox monthly by subscribing to the KidsHealth newsletter here.
From babies to teens, pediatricians from CHOC’s Primary Care Network partner with parents to offer immunizations, sick visits, sports physicals and more.