The start of a new school year can be a challenging time for kids and families. But with a little preparation and the right attitude, shifting from summer to school doesn’t have to be overly stressful.
To help ease the transition, we’ve compiled guidance from our experts on everything from keeping up with COVID-19 guidelines, managing the change with healthy routines, minimizing stress, supporting kids’ social development and other common challenges.
COVID-19 and school
Understandably, most of us just want the pandemic to be over. But it isn’t – yet. That’s why as school begins, it’s important to keep up with local rules and regulations that are in place to protect students and staff.
Fortunately, we're in a much different situation than we were during lockdown and even when schools were reopening. We now have layers of protection – most importantly vaccination – that help keep young learners safe.
COVID-19 vaccination before school
Most importantly, parents should ensure that their schoolchildren have received a COVID-19 vaccine and are fully immunized before school begins. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the final dose in their primary vaccine series. (That could be either two or three doses, depending on your child’s age, which vaccine they got, and whether they have conditions or take medications that affect their immune system.) When your child is eligible for a booster, take advantage of that opportunity so they can be as protected as possible.
While mask recommendations shift depending on transmission levels in your area, it’s helpful to have masks on-hand for times of moderate to high spread.
Keep up with your school’s rules and regulations
Given the frequently changing landscape of COVID-19 and rules that differ by district, it’s important to check with your local school and health officials to find out which precautions they recommend or require.
Recommendations may depend on the case counts and COVID-19 positivity rates in your county, so it's good to keep track of transmission in the community where your kids attend school.
Keeping schools COVID safe
Along with vaccination, the most effective ways to protect kids from COVID-19 while in school are:
- Encouraging mask use during times of high community spread, especially indoors
- Good and frequent hand-washing
- Keeping kids home when they’re sick or have cold or flu symptoms
- Avoiding large, crowded indoor gatherings
- Improving ventilation of indoor spaces
- Testing programs for kids with symptoms and screening when risk is high
If you’re unsure what your school is doing to keep staff and students safe, you can ask about the precautions above as well as ventilation in common areas, testing, symptom screening and contact tracing.
Managing the transition to back to school
Since starting or returning to school is a big change for children and everyone in the household, it can create stress for the whole family. It’s important to lay the groundwork for a successful school year by creating healthy routines that will see you and your kids through the year.
Here are some important ways you can ease the transition.
Ideally, we’d all stick to our healthy habits and routines over the summer. But if some of your family routines went into summer mode, that’s OK. Now’s the perfect time to get everyone back on a healthy track with these tips for your learner.
An hour of exercise every day can help kids gain confidence, maintain a healthy weight, boost mental health, pay attention in the classroom and sleep better. To help them get enough activity, be active with them on the weekends, encourage active play dates with friends and consider signing them up for sports or other physical activities.
Get enough sleep
Skimping on sleep can cause behavioral issues, mood swings and trouble concentrating. To help your child sleep more soundly, establish a regular bedtime and turn off the computer or TV about an hour before they hit the hay. Find out how many hours your child should be sleeping according to their age.
Get a checkup and review immunizations
Regular checkups with your child’s pediatrician, called well visits or wellness checks, are crucial for your child’s physical health – and their mental health, too. Make an appointment about a month before school starts to allow time for any follow-up needed.
When your child gets sick and misses class, it can take days or even weeks to catch up on work and prepare for tests. Vaccines help protect your child from viruses that cause illnesses such as COVID-19, chickenpox and influenza, and your pediatrician can make sure your child is on schedule.
Get back on schedule
Before the school year begins, start establishing the “school night” bedtimes, and wake children up at the time they will be getting up for school. It's also helpful to eat meals on a more regular schedule before school starts.
Establish a family calendar where all activities and important assignment due dates are easy to spot. Prepare school bags and clothes the night before, arrange books and school supplies on shelves or in boxes or drawers, organize all paperwork by priority, and make a single to-do list of all the tasks you need to complete each day.
Plan for homework
Make a plan for where and when homework happens. Is it always at the kitchen table right after school, or perhaps a desk or room for doing homework after dinner? Sticking to a schedule helps it stay part of the evening routine.
Check in with the school
Communicate regularly with your child’s teachers, even if it’s over email, to stay on top of how they’re doing academically, socially and behaviorally.
Tips for new students
Is your child new to school or nervous about the year ahead? No problem. Here are some tips that can help.
Have a practice run
Take a leisurely trip to school before the first day. Make it fun with a drive, bike ride or family walk to familiarize kids with the route to school.
Talk about it
If your child shows any concern about the school year, ask them what they are worried about and provide reassurance. Don’t forget to talk about the fun and exciting things that will be happening throughout the year, too.
Tips that are always helpful
Go through expectations ahead of time. Talking through getting dressed, eating breakfast and grooming helps everyone get ready on time. (And practice, too, if needed.)
When you pick up your child from school or welcome them home after piano practice, ask questions about the day. Give your child a chance to talk about things that make them happy or situations that are causing worry. Support from a parent can be very comforting to a child and helps kids develop a sense of self-confidence. Find ways to connect with your child.
Don’t over-schedule your child or family
Kids need downtime, too. Include your child in decisions regarding what or how many activities they are involved in and ask how much they can handle in addition to schoolwork.
Establish fun traditions
Do something fun the night before school starts or have a special breakfast on the first day. Make it a day they look forward to every year.
Remind children that they’re loved
Send an encouraging note or text for your child to read on the way to or from school. For younger children, include a family photo or a special note in their backpack or lunchbox to help them get through the day.
Making friends at school
When a new year begins, some kids worry about making new friends and “fitting in." As a parent, you can support your child in developing positive social skills and finding a safe, welcoming social group.
The more children practice social skills, the better they will get. Some of these skills include introducing themselves, showing interest in others’ comments, finding common ground or interests and inviting people to join in activities. Learn more about helping your kids make friends.
Show how you care for others by asking about how they are feeling and then repeating back to them what you heard. While it’s tempting to offer advice, the foundation of empathic listening is to simply listen and then make sure that you understood accurately. You can also use affirmative statements such as, “That sounds hard,” and ask questions like, “It sounds like you feel sad – could you tell me about that?” to show empathy in action.
Coach children on the impact of their words and actions
One person's joke can easily be another person's hurt feelings. Explain how what they say and do could make others feel or be interpreted differently than they intended. Set expectations for appropriate behavior and listen to how they interact with their friends. Learn more about how to teach your child empathy.
Start at home
Observe the social interactions you and your family have at home with each other. Do they show empathy and kindness? If not, find ways to lessen conflict and increase empathy and compassion (and reach out for professional help if necessary). If you have more than one child, teach them the importance of treating each other with kindness and respect. Research shows that hostility between siblings can leave a lasting, detrimental impact. Do not tolerate bullying or aggression between siblings.
Unfortunately, bullying continues to be a common problem at many schools. The good news is that parents can play a role in educating their children to avoid becoming a bully or being targeted by one.
Know the three types of bullying
Prevention starts with knowing about the different types of bullying and facilitating open, honest conversations with your child.
Establish healthy norms with social media
While social media can be a force for positive social connections, it can also fuel social conflict, cyber bullying and poor self-image. Discover ways to limit the potential harm of social media. Also make it a point to know your child’s online world by monitoring their posts, private messages and sites they visit.
Additional tips in time for school
Supporting your child with healthy routines and encouraging positive social skills can make for a smooth back-to-school transition. Yet some kids and teens deal with specific challenges that can make their adjustment more difficult.
Handling school refusal
If your child refuses to go to school, you are not alone. More than 25% of children will have some type of school refusal behavior at some point during their lives, and it’s much more common during transitions.
Supporting kids who need more help at school
If your child has a diagnosed developmental or intellectual disability, they could benefit from an individualized education plan, or IEP. Find ways to help your child get learning support.
Supporting children with chronic illness
If your child has a chronic illness, supporting them in their educational journey can require a unique set of parenting skills. Check out our toolkit for managing illness at school.