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Gearing up for Back to School


Gearing up for Back to School

Jack Muskat, Ph.D.

Transitions are tough for all of us, especially kids. Think how hard it is to get back to work after a two week vacation. We can't remember our logon passwords, key files are missing (I thought they were in the bottom drawer), your colleague who was going to cover for you got sick, your boss wants to redo the design proposal that you can't even remember doing . . . How do you feel? Pretty anxious and disoriented, as you drag yourself through the day. You come home exhausted and dread going back to work. And that was only after 2 weeks. 

Now imagine your child, six weeks into a two month school break. June was just a blur, and the rest of the year forgotten. The summer was one long day of fun, and mom and dad seemed less stressed and cranky. There were lots of outings, or weeks at camp, and lots of time to do "nothing". Now with August in full swing, and back to school sales around the corner, there is the dim realization that September, once as far away as the planet Pluto, is hurtling towards us at breakneck speed. How do kids react? 


  1. Denial - School is not around the corner, I don't have to go back, summer is forever 
  2. Procrastination - School is coming, but I have lots of time to get ready 
  3. Panic - school is here and I have done nothing to get ready
  4. Meltdown - I can't do this, will someone take over, please

If they were able to step back, assess the situation, prioritize what is needed, and then execute in a timely manner, they would not have "meltdowns". They actually know what they need to do, but haven't a clue where to begin, so they do everything to avoid the situation. This is actually a rational response to a stressful situation. 

Parents need to realize that kids need lots of time to prepare when transitioning from summer to fall, from play to schoolwork. To help kids get a head start parents should consider the following: 


By getting your child to bed a little earlier each night, starting now, you will have an easier time of it in September. It takes at least 3-4 days for young kids to adjust to changes in sleep and sometimes weeks in older kids and adolescents. 


It is amazing how often we assume what our kids are afraid of, without asking them. It may be a concern that a friend won't be coming back to school, or a feared bully maybe. Or that the teacher will be mean, or that the lunch mom prepares is not eco-friendly, or that gym sucks, or math is too hard . . . At this point just listen and acknowledge your child's feelings - "I can see why you feel that way" or "I would be scared too". Sometimes just talking about it is a relief, so the child feels validated for his or her feelings, but is not pressured or criticized - (don't be silly, don't act like a baby). This is critical in building trust. 


Many schools encourage parents to meet the key personnel at a new school, especially for middle school and high school students. Principals and guidance counsellors are happy to meet with parents and listen to kids talk about their concerns. A tour is often helpful in reducing fears, and knowing that there are friendly faces present will make kids feel more secure. 


Change takes time. Research shows it takes 6 weeks to establish a habit, and one week to lose it. Take small steps with your child, build slowly, be prepared for setbacks, but don't give up. A cheerful persistence can win the day. We forget how fragile kids egos are; a word here, a glance there, and they can fall apart. Once they see that parents are not monsters but coaches, calm and steady in a storm, they will respond with greater confidence.

Do you have any transition tips that weren't mentioned in the article? Please share them with us and other parents in the comments! If you want to learn more about how you can help your child this fall, register for our webinar happening August 21 at 2PM. 

Jack Muskat is a Clinical Consulting and Organizational Psychologist with broad expertise in diagnosis and treatment of children and adolescents in mental health and school settings.