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Navigating Back To School Transitions

The Back To School advertisements start way too soon. Yet the evenings become cooler, the daylight slightly shorter, and the August calendar proclaims summer is almost over. Change and transitions can be complicated for most of us and especially for children and teens. With an inevitable backlog of logistics to tend to, let us assist you by providing a variety of ways to ease transition stressors and anxiety!

Getting a read on emotions

If your child or teen is worried about the start of school - whether it’s a new school, new teacher, new classes - they may not be able to let you know specifically how they are feeling.

A colleague used to say, “behavior is a statement of feeling”. Notice what your child or teen may be feeling by their behavior. Are you noticing irritability, change in appetite, more sleeping, or sleepless nights? This could be nervousness about the coming transitions and they might not have the words or even be aware of their feelings.

Using observable behaviors can help - it’s an objective means to let them know what you are seeing. Cultivating curiosity is not judging, but rather working to make a connection between what you observe and wondering what may be behind it.

You, as the parent/guardian/caregiver, can jump start communication by bringing up these transition and changes yourself. You can talk about how you handled the progression from summer to fall. A caveat to remember: think about discussing positive experiences and, if you wish to bring up scenarios that were less than successful, be prepared with what you would do differently for an improved outcome.

Visualizing the space

Preparation for the new year can take a variety of forms. If possible, it can be effective for some children and teens to go to the school and take a walk around, peeking into the classrooms, strolling the hallways, and getting a sense of the school. Even if it is a familiar space, it is a tangible way to begin to recognize summer is ending. If it is a new school, worries they may have about newness may be alleviated by being able to visualize the space.

Our son, now 23 years old, was distraught on his first day of camp years ago. “Why doesn’t camp have a screening! Kindergarten has screenings and you can see what it’s like. Why doesn’t camp?!” He was right: his kindergarten screening helped him see his new school and helped him prepare. Camp was a complete unknown and frightening. He did go that day and I introduced him to his counselor and they were exceedingly kind and welcomed him into what turned into a fun experience. More preparation on my part could have eased his worries.

Locating the inner early bird

The shift to earlier school days from the late wake-ups of summer is something to discuss and plan ahead of time with your teenager. Some find it useful to start a week or two ahead of school starting with increasingly earlier bedtimes and wake up calls. Again, this can ease the transition and make that first morning back to school feel more seamless.

Ahh, the smell of fresh notebooks!

Talk together about what the school may have sent - supplies needed, schedules, etc. - and use them as a tool to generate excitement for the coming school year. If finances are a problem and you are concerned about the costs of the school supply list, please reach out to the school administration. There may be a fund to help families in need.

Setting a routine and modeling

Your child or teen will watch you and your responses & reactions - please remember that you are modeling for them. They may deny that what you do and what you say has impact, but it does! You excited for their next adventure in school will help them become more animated - even if you may not see it immediately.

This is a fine time to plan an activity that can become part of your routine together: whether it be watching a YouTube video, listening to a song, practicing a deep breathing exercise, going on an errand, taking a quick walk, cooking, having a drink of water. Making time strengthens your connection - the amount is less important than the focus of being together. This is a foundation upon which your child or teen will depend and be able to come to you when issues arise.

Fueling up

Logistically, talk together about breakfasts and lunches. Having a “full tank” of food in the morning does help with absorption of academic material and staying alert. Some children and teens don’t like typical breakfast foods. Leftovers, a piece of fruit, peanut butter with or without banana on toast - something in one’s stomach will be beneficial throughout the day. Some may take a food item that is easy to carry and eat it on the way or when they get to school. Thinking together about how to get up early enough to eat or pack up something will make a positive difference.

Think together about lunches as well: will they eat the school lunch? Will they bring lunch? If bringing lunch, it can be helpful to prepare it the night before. Some children and teens will have the same lunch every day for their entire K-12 years. Some want something different each day.

If your child or teen has an allergy, make sure the school is aware and what to do in case of a reaction. Do they know how to tell someone about their allergies? Talk with them about who and what to say.

And finally, reflecting together:

Consider what happened this summer that was positive or fun and take time to celebrate that together. It may have been a fleeting moment and most of the summer was complicated or difficult. Focus on that moment together because that will increase its importance and be a good memory. Was it a meal? A shared laughter? A quiet time in the car together? A song that resonated for you? One mindful moment can offer a pleasant memory to carry into the fall and hold onto when tensions arise.


As you enter into the new season, try to carve out time at least once a week to sit down together as a family for a meal (more is even more effective if possible!). Research indicates that this time together promotes healthy social emotional growth.

There are some families who will ask questions to each family member:

  • What was something that made you laugh?

  • Something that made you upset?

  • Did something new happen today?

  • Who did you sit near today?

Using open ended questions eases the conversation with other questions naturally coming up as everyone takes a turn answering.

Proactively working together on this new exciting phase of their lives will create a space for development and growth and a good year.

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