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Back-to-School Transitions
What Parents Can Do
Adapted from “Back-to-School” Transitions

Ted Feinberg, Ed.D., and Kathy Cowan

Getting a new school year off to a good start can influence children's attitude, confidence, and performance both socially and academically. The transition from August to September can be difficult for children and parents. Even children who are eager to return to class must adjust to the greater levels of activity, structure, and, for some, pressures associated with school life. The degree of adjustment depends on the child, but parents can help their children (and the rest of the family) manage the increased pace of life by planning ahead, being realistic, and maintaining a positive attitude. Following are a few helpful suggestions to ease the transition and promote a successful school experience.

Before school starts:
  • Mark you calendar with important dates, such as back to school night. This is especially important if you have children in more than one school and need to juggle obligations. 
  • Plan to reestablish the bedtime and mealtime routines (including breakfast) at least one week before school starts. Prepare your children for this change by talking to them about the benefits of school routines in terms of not becoming overtired or overwhelmed by school work and activities. Include pre-bedtime reading and household chores, if these were suspended during the summer.
  • Encourage your children to play quiet games, do puzzles, flash cards, color or read as their early morning activities, instead of watching television. This will help ease them into the learning process and school regime. If possible, maintain this practice throughout the school year. Television is distracting for many children and they will arrive at school better prepared to learn each morning if they have engaged in less passive activities. 
  • Designate and clear a place to do homework. Older children should have the option to study in their room or a quiet area of the house. Younger children usually need an area set aside in the family room or kitchen to enable adult monitoring, supervision, and encouragement. 
  • Select a spot to keep backpacks, lunch boxes etc. as well as a place for your child to put important notices and information sent home for you to see. Explain that emptying their backpack each evening is part of their responsibility, even for young children.

The first week:
  • Clear your own schedule. To the extent possible, postpone business trips, volunteer meetings, extra projects, etc. You want to be free to help your child acclimate to the school routine and overcome the confusion or anxiety that many children experience at the start of a new school year.
  • Leave plenty of extra time to get up, eat breakfast, and get to school. For very young children taking the bus, pin to their shirt or backpack an index card with pertinent information, including their teacher's name and bus number, as well as your daytime contact information.
  • Review with your child what to do if they get home after school and you are not there. Be very specific, particularly with young children. Put a note card in their backpack with the name(s) and number(s) of a neighbor who is home during the day as well as a number where you can be reached. If you have not already done so, have your child meet their neighbor contacts to reaffirm their backup support personally.
  • Review your child's schoolbooks with them and talk about what they will be learning during the year. Share your enthusiasm for subject matters and their ability to master the content. Reinforce the natural progression of the learning process that occurs over the school year. Learning skills take time and repetition. Encourage your child to be patient, attentive, and positive.
  • Familiarize yourself with the other professionals in the building or district who can be a resource for your child. Learn their roles and how best to access their help if you need them. This can include the principal and front office personnel; school psychologist, counselor, and social worker; the reading specialist, speech therapist, and school nurse; and the after school activities coordinator.

Overcoming Anxiety:
  • If your child is anxious about school, send personal "love" notes in their lunch box or book bag. Reinforce their ability to cope. Children absorb their parent's anxiety, so model optimism and confidence for your child. Let him know that it is natural to be a little nervous anytime you start something new but that they will be just fine once they become familiar with their classmates, teacher, and school routine.
  • Don't over-react if the first few days are a little rough. Young children in particular may experience separation anxiety or shyness initially but teachers are trained to help them adjust. If you drop them off, don't linger. Reassure them that you love them, will think of them during the day, and will be back. Remain calm and positive.

Extra Curricular Activities:
  • Go for quality, not quantity. Your child will benefit most from one or two activities that are fun, reinforce their social development, and teach new skills. Too much scheduled time can be stressful, especially for young children, and may make it harder to concentrate on schoolwork.
  • If your child doesn't want to participate in regular, organized extracurricular activities, you may want to consider other options to help build interests and social skills. For example, check out the local library for monthly reading programs, find out if your local recreation or community center offers drop-in activities, or talk to other parents and schedule regular play dates with their children.

These recommendations can contribute to a positive and productive school experience for most children. Some children may exhibit more extreme opposition to or fear of school or may be coping with more specific learning or psychological difficulties. If your child demonstrates problems that seem extreme in nature or go on for an extended period, you may want to contact the school to set up an appointment to meet with your child's teacher and school psychologist. They may be able to offer direct or indirect support that will help identify and reduce the presenting problem. They may also suggest other resources within the school and the community to help you address the situation.

While children can display a wide variety of behaviors, it is generally wise not to over interpret them. More often than not, time and a few intervention strategies will remedy the problem. Most children are wonderfully resilient and with your support and encouragement will thrive throughout their school experience.

For further information on issues related to the learning and development of children and youth, contact the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) at (301) 657-0270 or visit
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