July 8, 2021

Psychologist offers tips on mentally preparing kids for the upcoming school year

Although it may feel like summer is just getting started, the beginning of the next school year is right around the corner.

For kids who might be a little anxious about returning to in-person learning, these summer days are less than relaxing.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty about what school will look and feel like this fall, and we know that uncertainty can be a major driver of anxiety for some people,” says Brian Leitzke, a pediatric and adult clinical health psychologist at UW Health. “However, as school districts continue to work on putting the final touches on their plans for the upcoming academic year, families can start developing their own over the summer.”

According to Leitzke, there are several things that families can do now to help make the transition back to school a little easier for kids and parents. Some recommendations include:

  • Plan ahead – parents should start talking to their kids now about what school may look like in the fall. Even if all the details are not yet known, most school districts have provided a general framework for how the upcoming school year will likely look. Use current information to help your child start to understand what is to come and build on as more details become available. If your child’s school allows, touring the building over the summer to see how things will look could provide some predictability, which will be particularly important for those starting at a new school. If your child is worried about being face-to-face in large groups, practice with small groups in safe settings over the summer to build confidence.

  • Prepare for the unexpected – As we have all learned this past year, things can change quickly. Although there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, there is always the possibility that the school year could be disrupted again by a surge in COVID-19 cases in the school or community. Discuss what that might look like for your family.

  • Provide structure and predictability – When kids’ lives are filled with uncertainty, structure and predictability can be especially comforting. Be sure to develop and stick to specific morning, evening, and sleep routines during the school year, and, if possible, provide consistent after-school activities that they can look forward to and count on. Practicing and role modeling these routines yourself will also help reinforce consistency and what is expected of your child.

  • Talk about worries/anxieties – Some kids are very forthcoming about their concerns, others less so. When trying to identify how kids are feeling, it helps to frame the questioning in a way that focuses on the positive. Asking kids about what they are looking forward to about the upcoming school year, or what they think might be different than previous years, can offer clues about how they’re feeling. Parents should also stick to the facts and keep their own anxieties or opinions about the school year out of the conversation. Should your child identify things they are anxious about, talk about ways to address the issue and practice coping strategies to manage their anxiety, such as taking pauses, deep breathing, or finding opportunities to take a break.

  • Review and adjust IEP and 504 plans – Parents of kids with special needs should review the current accommodations in their special education plans and consider making changes that could help address any current or anticipated concerns based on possible changes at school. Reaching out sooner rather than later can help ensure appropriate accommodations are in place by the beginning of the school year.

Leitzke says parents should also find out what resources are available at school for kids who are struggling during the school day. Remember that change does not happen overnight, and that not every day will be perfect. As always, parents should consult with their pediatrician if they notice any unexpected behavior changes or worrisome disruptions in eating or sleeping patterns.