The new school year is dawning.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I am getting lots of referrals for school-age kids who are struggling getting ready to go back to school. Their emotions are high, siblings are fighting, and parents are done. The anticipation of the next few weeks is building, and I am here to remind you that this is normal. It’s developmental for lots of kids at least, and I think we need to remind ourselves that.
These past few years have been filled with so much UNKNOWN for all of us, and school seems to always be a moving target. Do you remember this graphic from last year? It still gives me pause. I shared this last September 2021 on my FaceBook page. I’m not sure I would count last year as “normal” but at least they went in person. We are getting there…..
I’m trying to focus on what we DO KNOW.
Over the next few weeks we will complete these tasks to prepare my kids for school:
- backpacks and lunchboxes purchased or cleaned (check out my top picks for backpacks for kids)
- new sneakers or first-day outfits picked out
- “ready for school” checklist posted by the backdoor
- school calendar hung up
- weekly afterschool schedule posted (Try these screen free after school activities)
- school lunch choices printed/selected
We have to acknowledge what we DON’T KNOW.
The unknown is uncomfortable, and it’s important to let our kids recognize and label these feelings. Lynn Lyons LICSW is a local therapist I follow who did a great post about anxiety and back to school. She says,
“As we move into the school year, remember: Children need help recognizing and normalizing their feelings, and understanding that feelings can’t always be in charge when making decisions or solving problems. Feelings are a prominent passenger on your bus, but not always the driver of that bus.”
Knowing this, here are some practical “to-do’s” that are helping at our house
I love visuals. I make a crazy-colored summer calendar for my family in June, and we revisit it often. The countdown to school drives my oldest nuts, but my youngest needs to see these weeks laid out for him so that he understands what’s coming. We revisit our summer “bucket list” and make a plan to finish it in these last few weeks. As I anticipate missing them when they’re off to school, it helps me to connect with them more now.
Adjusting sleep –
this part is painful for me, but it’s important. I try to get them to bed earlier in those weeks before school starts, and encourage a wakeup time closer to when the morning alarm will sound.
Practice self-help skills –
Younger students should be able to take off and put on their shoes and jackets independently. Have them pack and unpack their backpacks, and hang them on a hook. It’s a new skill to eat lunch in the cafeteria, so practice opening/closing containers is helpful too! Using a timer to have younger students practice eating within 20-30 minute time block may be helpful. My kids have spent their summer barefoot, so they could use some practice with tying their sneakers again!
Connect with friends –
Our district includes a class list with their teacher assignment, and it’s helpful to meet up with friends before school starts. We have a school-wide (albeit overwhelming) popsicle party leading up to the big day, but I make sure to meet at the park with a few classmates so that they are familiar with them again after being apart for the summer. It gives them that social connection to help the transition and look forward to class.
Read books about return to school –
We have a nice post about books for preschool and kindergarten here. Our local library has a display when you enter their youth area also, my oldest enjoys reading the younger picture books to his little brother.
Remember that the younger grades haven’t had a lot of experience in this “back to school” department, and that back to school jitters are normal and expected. Older students will remember the uncertainty of years past. This will pass as September dawns and they fall into a rhythm. This is a temporary stress that will resolve.
Spend some days together –
Spend some time outside. Use the natural world as therapy during these transition weeks. As an adult who is starting to return to a school-based job, I am often reminding myself – September is beautiful in the seacoast, fall is a favorite and we will continue to enjoy it all. But we need to get outside!
Remember that all of us, especially our children, are still healing from these COVID years, and this will take awhile to completely recover. Our kids need to play and rest. They still need structure and routine and limits set by their adults. They need to know what’s coming and what is expected, to the extent that we can prepare them.
Know that these jitters will settle in time.
Play in the sand, jump in the water, eat some ice cream and soak up what’s left!