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Making the Back to School Transition Better


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One of the funniest back-to-school commercials ever made may be the one featuring a gleeful dad (and sullen kids) shopping for school supplies at Staples to the tune of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (Google it for a laugh). Not everyone feels so giddy, though, by the prospect of going back to the grind. 

“Anxiety and fear is future-focused; we worry about what’s to come,” says Amie Wolf-Mehlman, PhD, a Montclair-based psychologist. “This is especially true for children when they envision the end of summer and return to school, so much so that it can be hard to enjoy those last weeks.” 

Giving up a lax pace and having to begin dealing with the demands of school can be stressful for parents, too. Here are some tips to help get the year off to a smooth start.  

PRESCHOOL 

Have a Positive Send-Off

Don’t let tears and a surprisingly strong grip break your resolve, says Michele Borba, Ed.D, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “Just say goodbye and don’t linger,” Borba says. Leaving after a simple and matter-of-fact ‘See you soon!’ works way better than a drawn-out goodbye, or worse, just sneaking away. It’s no lie—they’ll be fine as soon as you’re out of sight. 

Make Sleep a Priority

No judgments here—we all let sleep schedules slide over the summer. Now it’s time to get back on track. According to Wolf-Mehlman, most children need at least 9-11 hours of sleep, and parents can help kids ease into an earlier schedule by slowly backing up bedtime while insisting everyone wakes up at their usual time. Once your family’s back at it, make sure bad habits (sneaking in your bed or asking for another glass of water) don’t creep back in.

New to School? Find a Friend

“Knowing just one classmate can minimize first day jitters...if possible help your kid meet at least one peer,” says Borba. “These two don’t have to become soulmates –just acquaintances.” Do a little sleuthing at the playground, post a request on a local parenting board or ask your child’s teacher for a class list so you can set up a play date before school starts. This same technique also works years later when your child finds him or herself in a class without any buddies.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Get Ahead of Last Year’s Issues

Did your child struggle last year? If he was bullied or had academic problems, talk to the administration early on to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. If evaluations are needed, request them ASAP.

Start Your Day the Night Before

“Mornings are always a bit more stressful, so do whatever you can to plan ahead, such as making and packing lunches the night before or...[getting] your kids involved,” says Borba. Ask your children to gather drinks and snacks while you prep tomorrow’s lunch. Help them lay out clothes for the next day. Confirm that homework, permission slips, books, etc. are in their backpacks, and park their stuff by the front door. You can even make it part of their bedtime routine—and little ones respond well to routine. 

Institute a Paper Policy

If lost teacher notes, school notices or conference schedules were a reoccurring problem in the past, set a simple new family policy. “Walk in, open your backpack and put any notes or graded papers in a basket by the front door,” says Borba. Be sure to check it nightly, tending to those needing your signature, and put them in your child’s backpack ASAP for next-day delivery. 

Hold Off on Clothes Shopping

You’re probably tempted by all those back-to-school bargains and tax holidays, but please, put down the credit card. Not only will there still be deals (we promise) but you won’t get stuck with a pile of new sparkly tops only to be told dismissively that “Ugh, NO ONE wears sparkly tops anymore, Mom.”

TWEENS AND TEENS

Create a Great Work Space

Most kids need a quiet, distraction-free space to focus. Setting up a proper study space—comfy, well lit, stocked with everything they need—is a fantastic way to get them into an academic headspace. Whether it’s in their room or adjacent to your home office, let them help decorate and shop for accessories and school supplies. Of course, if your kids tend to...drift, there’s nothing wrong with having them sit at the kitchen table under your watchful eye.

Make Lists to Manage Anxiety

School gets more intense after elementary. Will they fit in? Will they do well? Will they be able to handle getting up early and the long day of work when they really just want to stay up late playing Call of Duty? Have your tweens and teens make a list of the things bothering them, suggests Wolf-Mehlman. It’s a tried and true way to put floating anxiety into words—words that can then be addressed as real concerns instead of unrealistic fears that need mitigating. 

Ban Tech in the Bedroom

What good is a sleep schedule when the urge to text, post and play is just a smartphone away? Teens, who often don’t get the minimum 9 hours of sleep they need, are the least interested in shutting it down at night. And given that most high schools start way too early, exhaustion is inevitable. Fighting a teen is generally a losing exercise, but you can enforce a no tech at night rule. They won’t be tempted by the stream of notifications on their phones and disruptive effects of their screen’s blue light. Good luck prying it out of their hands, though. 

YOU (YES, YOU!)

Get Organized (Finally)

Create a command center in your kitchen for all things organizational—schedules, permission slips, to-do lists, etc. It offers an accessible way for the entire family to be on the same page. Chalkboard paint, dry erase decals, pegboards and baskets are frequent DIY ingredients. Search Pinterest for creative ways to customize your own.  

Plan a Mom’s (or Dad’s) Night Out

Put yourself out there. From forgotten homework to emergency pick-ups, fostering good (even great) relationships with other parents can save your hide again and again. Not only that, but the grapevine is a rich source of information. We’re not talking about gossip, but rather gleaning priceless tips on teachers, doctors, activities, events and even job leads. 

Just Buy the School Supply Box

Here’s some advice to help you get ahead of next school year: If your school’s PTA makes life easier by allowing you to buy a school supply box, do it. Sure, you can get the goods cheaper by buying them on your own.  But gleeful Staples Dad aside, there’s nothing more wonderful than having one less thing to worry about as you head into the new year. Good luck! 

Jennifer Kantor is a parenting and lifestyle writer. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and two kids. 

 
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