Even though kids returned to school a few weeks ago, this is still a time of transition for them that may include stressors such as greater academic demands, changes in routine, and social challenges. In fact, psychologists have found that school transitions are stressful times, both socially and academically, for many children. Here are some common challenges and tips for helping children adjust smoothly to a new school year.
A new school year means learning new concepts and, as parents, it often means seeing a gradual increase in the difficulty and length of your child’s schoolwork. While an ability to manage more work is an important skill for children to learn, an increase in academic responsibilities can also lead to school-related stress. Researchers suggest that parents can help their children by engaging in consistent homework routines. While children often want to relax after school, completing homework first and engaging in fun activities as a reward later (e.g., outside play, TV time, video games) can help keep children motivated through homework time.
During this initial transition into the school year, it is also important to give children positive attention when they willingly engage in new routines. According to research, children love positive attention (e.g., praise) and are much more likely to maintain good habits if they consistently get positive attention for doing so. Once consistent routines are established, children learn to finish their homework in anticipation of rewarding activities to follow.
However, not every child is the same. Especially for children with unique learning needs, breaks after school and/or during homework may be necessary to decompress and recharge. Here, routines are especially important. For example, you might give your child 10 minutes to play a favorite game after school, and then have your child complete homework for 30 minutes at a time, allowing him or her to take a five-minute break after each 30 minute block of homework. The same idea of routine and reward can be used to help each unique child adjust to school.
Additional techniques can be used to help a child experiencing anxiety about school. Techniques that might help ease your child’s concerns about attending school, being away from his or her parents, and/or taking a big test include empathizing with your child’s concerns and encouraging your child to face new situations, since new scenarios get easier with practice. For example, if your child mentions worries about the upcoming school day, you might consider empathizing with the fact that new schedules can be hard and then calmly talking about your child’s new routine, such as, what time lunch is, and what time you will pick them up. This way, your child is able to prepare for the upcoming school day and begin facing any fears he or she might be experiencing.
Finally, you might encourage your child to try to be brave and make it through the day, even if he or she is worried.
Although school is often considered a place primarily for learning academics, social challenges pose unique opportunities for children to learn and grow. These opportunities include communicating with teachers, socializing with peers, and dealing with negative peer or teacher interactions. One technique that increases children’s ability to handle social situations is social role-playing. Specifically, parents can encourage their child to think through the social issue, come up with solutions for how to communicate with others to solve the problem, and role-play interactions that he or she might have with teachers or peers. This technique can help ease your child’s uncertainty about how to respond to social situations and aid in the development of social skills.
While these tips are designed to help children and parents adjust to the challenges of the new school year, it is important to monitor your child’s ability to cope with stressful social and/or academic issues throughout the school year. Stress can sometimes be hard to identify in children, therefore, it is important that parents monitor any red flags or common signals, such as difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomachaches, and/or changes in behavior. If your child experiences academic difficulties, many schools provide extra help for students during specified times, which we encourage parents to utilize early and often, before problems worsen.
Should you feel that your child might be in need of additional assistance, dial 211 to connect 24/7 with trained staff and volunteers who provide telephone counseling, crisis intervention, and information and referral to countywide services.
Dainelys Garcia, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Health System’s Division of Clinical Psychology. Jamie Sherman, M.S., is a pediatric psychology resident. For more information, visit umiamihealth.org/pediatrics.