After going back to school eleven times, you would think that I am a veteran of the transition from vacation mode to back to school. Yet even as I am preparing to enter my senior year of high school, the stress of the upcoming school year is a bit anxiety provoking, making it hard to sleep and eat as I should. The word “school” triggers an avalanche of memories of late nights studying and doing homework, strained relationships with friends and family because of stress, and the overwhelming pressure to succeed academically. Just thinking about my heavy course-load and extracurricular activities makes my heart beat faster and my chest constrict. Academic stress is real. In our society, where academic success is highly valued, the stress and pressure it places on students can be crippling and in fact produce the exact opposite outcome. Going back to school places greater demands on time with homework, sports practice, music lessons, packing lunch, etc. The increased number of tasks is challenging because it requires students to become adept at multi-tasking while carrying greater responsibility. For most students, this stress is manageable, but for some, they may need extra help. Parents can help their children by talking to them about stress management and self-care strategies like deep breathing, taking a bath, talking with a friend, going on a walk, reading a book, journaling, walking or exercising . It’s important to start these conversations early on because it helps build that line of communication between parent and child, but it also allows self-care to become a habit instead of an exception. Trying to suddenly insert self-care into our daily lives is definitely more difficult than having had self-care planned and practiced consistently.
For some students, having a learning disability can add extra stress to completing task demands. Parents may also feel lost on how to support their child. As a parent, you have the right to advocate for your child, so do not hesitate to reach out to your child’s teacher. Talk to your child’s teacher about your concerns and try to create a plan or some strategies to support your child. Depending on your child’s needs, a plan could be anything from allowing your child to sit in the front of the room, have a fidget spinner, or utilizing a 504 or IEP plan.
On top of academic stress, many students feel stressed about their social lives. It may be cliché, but school is a “jungle.” There are students in tight cliques, lots of rules, teachers to deal with and mean kids too. Trying to survive in this social jungle and re-adjust to the fluid social dynamics of a new school year can be daunting. Especially if your child has had a history of being bullied or has struggled with making friends, the thought of going back to school can trigger feelings of anxiety and depression. Take time to talk about healthy friendships and strategies to make new friends. It may be a good idea to set up a few play-dates (or “hangouts” if your child is older) before school starts to re-acquaint your child with friends they may not have seen all summer.
School brings with it a lot of changes which can be scary for your student, so setting up routines well ahead of time can provide a sense of security and predictability. This could mean that your family starts to sleep and wakeup, eat dinner, do some brain stimulating activities, etc. as if it were a school day. Experiment with different stress management techniques and find what works best for your student. I know that I’ll be stocking up on chocolate, packing my backpack the day before, wearing my favorite outfit, and adjusting my sleep schedule to start school on my best foot. And hopefully, this year, my final year of grade school, will be the year I finally transition to school perfectly.
If planning, discussion, and practice of coping skills do not help ease the transition back to school, and your student has changes in eating, sleeping and mood, parents and caregivers might consider seeking the help of a child mental health counselor. Ryther has over 30 therapists trained in helping children and youth with diverse challenges including social anxiety, ADHD, and many other issues.