Back-to-School Advice for Parents and Caregivers

September 13, 2023
Michelle Vazquez

For many parents, caregivers, and children alike, the back-to-school season is rarely synonymous with an easy time. Instead, this time often entails a transition from long summer days to structured school hours, which for many can be exciting, but also anxiety-inducing and even chaotic for some families. Understandably so, from as early as 0-5 years old, kids can have a hard time adjusting to new routines, which can add stress to family dynamics. Given this, we’d like to provide caregivers with information and advice on how to help ease their child and themselves during this time of year and beyond.

Beginning with the little ones, ages 0 to 5, the back-to-school transition is just as much a new experience for the kids as it is for the parents. Up until then, many of the kids haven’t left their caregiver’s side for extended periods of time, so this can be a jarring change for all parties involved. According to Odalys DeLeon, ASW, CII’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Specialist, it is important for parents to observe and note their child’s temperament and consider sharing this with their teacher. Are they easy going or slow to warm up? Are they receptive to new experiences or do they take time to adapt? What is their frustration tolerance? These are all great questions Ms. DeLeon recommends you keep in mind during this time of year.

In some cases, little kids can start off very excited for the new year and new experiences, but as the year progresses and they settle into the routine, they may become increasingly dysregulated both at school and at home. Some warning signs include having a hard time with the morning routine and if there are tantrums before school and/or afterschool. These signs as far as one or two months into the school year should raise some alarms.

So, what can be done if a child is not adjusting that far into the school year? “Something to keep in mind,” Ms. DeLeon mentions, “is that consistency creates a sense of safety. Bedtime and morning routines can help with anxiety about school.” Creating a social story can allow a child to visualize these daily routines and ultimately feel grounded when they are doing their routines in real-time. To create a social story, first ensure that the child is in an emotionally regulated state. Then, allow the child to draw themselves during each stage of their daily routines and caption the images with a few words about what they are doing. Example, ask the child to draw a picture of themselves brushing their teeth and write “when I wake up, I brush my teeth.” Other helpful activities include exposing them to media which portrays school in a positive way, such as Bluey or Sesame Street, or allowing them to bring a small item or token with them to school that reminds them of their caregiver.

Though we can expect children to become more resilient as they grow older, it can still be hard for kids in higher grade levels to feel integrated, especially if they are starting at a new school. According to Dr. Karla Harness Brown, Inglewood Unified School District’s Child Welfare and Attendance Advisor, something to look out for in teens and pre-teens is “spill-over” from the school day into the evening time. This can look differently depending on the child, but some signs include withdrawal from social situations, wanting to stay in their room all the time, having negative conversations about school, and becoming heavily involved with the internet. Overall, the child is communicating that they had a hard time at school during the day.

Thankfully, it is possible to intervene when you sense that your child is struggling. Dr. Harness Brown recommends that caregivers use the window of time on the ride or walk home to naturally ask “What did you like about school today?” Even if it was just what they had for lunch, this is a good way to help the child feel safe to talk about their day to their caregiver. Also, it is still advised to reach out to their teachers. “Talk to the teacher. It’s okay to do that,” says Dr. Harness Brown, “In the beginning teachers are doing ice breaker activities that help build bonds between students. During this time of year, teachers can also set up a buddy system for recess and lunch.” If the child is a bit older, you can also encourage them to join clubs and school activities to help them integrate. “It’s hard for new students when their classmates have attended the same schools overtime.  In this situation, a parent can also connect with other parents at their child’s school to help create a social network with their child,” says Dr. Harness Brown. Building a social network of parents can also be very beneficial for neurodivergent children who have a harder time in social situations. If needed, talking with a school counselor is also an option as they can act as the liaison between the parent and the teacher.

Though it may feel natural to stay focused on the child’s experience during this time, it is just as important to simultaneously practice self-care as a parent. Both Odalys DeLeon and Dr. Harness Brown recommend finding a mindfulness activity to help parents understand their own feelings and soothe their emotions. Meditation, deep breathing, prayer, and yoga are all great ways to begin this practice. In addition, understanding one’s own triggers is essential to help navigate stressful situations both at home and at school.

Though this time of year brings many changes, it also allows an opportunity for growth and development. As with any transitional period, moments of uncertainty are common. Though tantrums or mood swings are uncomfortable to bear, caregivers are encouraged to approach tough situations with curiosity and know that children may lack the maturity and language to communicate that they are having a hard time adjusting. It is great to know that there are ways to help students integrate and there is a community of adults, including teachers and school counselors, dedicated to helping the child succeed at school and beyond. CII wishes everyone a great 2023-2024 school year!