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Tips for helping kids transition back to school

For many children and parents the transition from summer routines back to school is a difficult one. Any time of transition can be hard for children, but transitioning back to school is especially challenging given the level of anxiety most children feel towards social situations, performance and separation from parents. Here are some of our tips for helping anxious children cope with returning to school:

Sean’s Tips

1)      Take care of the basics

Sleep schedules often change between summer vacation and the school year. Remaining as consistent as possible with sleep schedules can make a huge difference for children that experience anxiety. Sleep routines are set by an internal clock in our brains, referred to as a circadian rhythms by nerds like us, and this patterned firing of neurons takes time to catch up to the changes we make in routine. When our circadian rhythm is out of sync with our actual bedtimes and wake times we see more difficulty falling asleep and overall decreases in quality and quantity of sleep. As a general rule, children need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep depending on the child. This decreases to between 7 and 9 hours by late adolescence and early adulthood. 

Diet can play a major role in anxiety. If you have ever visited a schoolyard, the first things parents notice is that there is a whole lot going on at all times. This level of stimulation can make paying attention to subtle messages from our bodies, like hunger and satiety, difficult. Making sure children eat wholesome and energy rich foods throughout the day can ensure they have the energy required to manage their emotional systems. Also, foods high in sugar and high carb “junk” foods can act as starter kits for anxiety as they spike arousal during and soon after consumption and can leave kids feeling burnt out afterwards. 

2)      Avoid avoidance! 

                     The only way any human has ever overcome a fear is by facing it- or I suppose by having parts of their brain removed. Surgical brain alteration is super risky so we recommend the first option. Children need to be supported to face their fears. As parents, we best support children when we are both a safe haven from the stresses of the world and a launch pad promoting further exploration. This is a fundamental principle in Attachment Theory and most positive parenting models.

Helping our children face their fears can be difficult. We want our children to be happy and it is difficult to watch them experience discomfort. As children struggle with hard emotions we may believe that removing them from the situation causing the discomfort is the compassionate thing to do. However, when it relates to most anxiety, avoidance increases discomfort in the long run. Children are safe at school and by removing them from it, or decreasing their exposure to it, we send their nervous systems mixed messages about this. 

If you have a child who wakes up and starts feeling a little gross inside about attending school, when they are told they can stay home that discomfort rapidly goes away. This sense of calm and positive emotion is then linked to not attending school. Staying home from school becomes associated with feeling calm and the link between going to school and discomfort is intensified. As children are able to sit through the initial discomfort of attending school it gives their nervous systems a chance to recalibrate and typically the anxiety will decrease over time if they continue to attend. 

For some children the demands of a full day are just too much. For these few children, with the help professionals like us, we may manage shorten the duration of their exposure to school briefly. This would provide them with the opportunity to face the anxiety while not being overwhelmed by it. In this case we often endorse attending as much of the day as possible and being mindful to increase durations regularly to keep them moving towards the goal of regular attendance. 

3)      Prepare for a hard first couple of weeks

              Just because challenging behaviours or intense emotional responses seem to escalate with exposure to their fears it does not mean that you are not helping your child. Often in childhood we see a brief escalation in behaviour and emotion following a shift in expectations. This little hump is referred to by nerds such as my-self as an “extinction spike.” Essentially, as we leave children to face their fears, they may work harder to draw out the avoidance they believe would be helpful. This can looks like more yelling and anger towards the parent. A typical spike will only last a couple of days. 

The emotional responses children feel towards school are not driven by parts of the brain that shift rapidly. These are typically driven by the limbic system in the brain which tends to be one of the more “let’s wait and see before changing anything” parts. The calming that comes from exposure to feared stimuli, like continuing to go to school even though it feels uncomfortable at first takes time and children may have to learn that it is okay to feel uncomfortable for a bit before they start to feel calmer.

Josh’s Tips

1)     The 4 x 5-minute rule

In the years I have spent working with individuals who have experienced trauma, I have often observed that it is not the trauma itself that will be the sole cause of PTSD, but how the trauma narrative is received by the support system; supports can serve as a buffer to the trauma. With that in mind, this is where I recommend the 4 x 5-minute rule, spending five minutes four times a day at their most vulnerable times: first thing in the morning, before school, after school, and bedtime. 

Use those four moments to empathize, validate, and connect with your child with whatever may be going on with them. Be curious about their dreams, prepare them for school, buffer them when they get home, and make them feel safe as they go to sleep. These moments can be pearls of connection as you learn more about your child’s world.

2)     Allow for free-play

Having a predictable and structured routine is important and it help children develop towards better managing worries and stress. As important as it is to be involved in structured programming, such as sports, music lessons, homework; it is just as important to have portions of the day available for free-play. Opportunities to explore and create are vital as children make maps of themselves and the world. Set out craft supplies, do some baking, kick around the soccer ball, allow for imaginative play, and so on. These can be very refreshing to a stressed brain and promote individuality and esteem.

3)       Parent self-care

I know, I know- we just had two months of summer, isn’t that enough self-care? No. Not the self-care that is needed to deal with the day-to-day tasks and stressors that the school year brings. True self-care includes small every day activities that give you a boost. Take stock of your resources: spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, or social, and schedule time to do things that make you smile, give you an emotional reward, or help you through the day. Some ideas are: going for a walk, reading or listening to a book, dancing or singing to your favourite song, exercise, certain scents, and so on.

When I facilitate groups with parents or students, one of the first things we do is build a list of self-care items, starting from the letter A going all the way to Z. It helps generate ideas of self-care that you may not have tried. I encourage you to make a list as well, you may learn something new that you would like to try. You’ll know you have found a self-care task when it provides you relief or gives you energy.

If you are taking care of yourself, you will be better able to support your child(ren) as they transition back to school.


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