Back-to-School Transitions: Tips for Parents
By Ted Feinberg, EdD, NCSP, & Katherine C. Cowan
National Association of School Psychologists
Getting a new school year off to a good start can influence children’s
attitude, confidence, and performance both socially and academically.
The transition from August to September can be difficult for both children
and parents. Even children who are eager to return to class must adjust
to the greater levels of activity, structure, and, for some, pressures
associated with school life.
The degree of adjustment depends on the child, but parents can help
their children (and the rest of the family) manage the increased pace
of life by planning ahead, being realistic, and maintaining a positive
attitude. Here are a few suggestions to help ease the transition and
promote a successful school experience.
Before School Starts
Good physical and mental health. Be sure your child is in
good physical and mental health. Schedule doctor and dental checkups
early. Discuss any concerns you have over your child’s emotional
or psychological development with your pediatrician. Your doctor can
help determine if your concerns are normal, age-appropriate issues or
require further assessment. Your child will benefit if you can identify
and begin addressing a potential issue before school starts. Schools
appreciate the efforts of parents to remedy problems as soon as they
Review all of the information. Review the material sent by
the school as soon as it arrives. These packets include important information
about your child’s teacher, room number, school supply requirements,
sign ups for after-school sports and activities, school calendar dates,
bus transportation, health and emergency forms, and volunteer opportunities.
Mark your calendar. Make a note of important dates, especially
back-to-school nights. This is especially important if you have children
in more than one school and need to juggle obligations. Arrange for
a babysitter now, if necessary.
Make copies. Make copies of all your child’s health
and emergency information for reference. Health forms are typically
good for more than a year and can be used again for camps, extracurricular
activities, and the following school year.
Buy school supplies early. Try to get the supplies as early
as possible and fill the backpacks a week or two before school starts.
Older children can help do this, but make sure they use a checklist
that you can review. Some teachers require specific supplies, so save
receipts for items that you may need to return later.
Re-establish the bedtime and mealtime routines. Plan to re-establish
the bedtime and mealtime routines (especially breakfast) at least 1
week before school starts. Prepare your child for this change by talking
with your child about the benefits of school routines in terms of not
becoming over tired or overwhelmed by school work and activities. Include
pre-bedtime reading and household chores if these were suspended during
Turn off the TV. Encourage your child to play quiet games,
do puzzles, flash cards, color, or read as early morning activities
instead of watching television. This will help ease your child into
the learning process and school routine. If possible, maintain this
practice throughout the school year. Television is distracting for many
children, and your child will arrive at school better prepared to learn
each morning if he or she has engaged in less passive activities.
Visit school with your child. If your child is young or in
a new school, visit the school with your child. Meeting the teacher,
locating their classroom, locker, lunchroom, etc., will help ease pre-school
anxieties and also allow your child to ask questions about the new environment.
Call ahead to make sure the teachers will be available to introduce
themselves to your child.
Minimize clothes shopping woes. Buy only the essentials.
Summer clothes are usually fine during the early fall, but be sure to
have at least one pair of sturdy shoes. Check with your school to confirm
dress code guidelines. Common concerns include extremely short skirts
and shorts, low rise pants, bare midriffs, spaghetti strap or halter
tops, exposed undergarments, and clothing that have antisocial messages.
Designate and clear a place to do homework. Older children
should have the option of studying in their room or a quiet area of
the house. Younger children usually need an area set aside in the family
room or kitchen to facilitate adult monitoring, supervision, and encouragement.
Select a spot to keep backpacks and lunch boxes. Designate
a spot for your children to place their school belongings as well as
a place to put important notices and information sent home for you to
see. Explain that emptying their backpack each evening is part of their
responsibility, even for young children.
Freeze a few easy dinners. It will be much easier on you
if you have dinner prepared so that meal preparation will not add to
household tensions during the first week of school.
The First Week
Clear your own schedule. To the extent possible, postpone
business trips, volunteer meetings, and extra projects. You want to
be free to help your child acclimate to the school routine and overcome
the confusion or anxiety that many children experience at the start
of a new school year.
Make lunches the night before school. Older children should
help or make their own. Give them the option to buy lunch in school
if they prefer and finances permit.
Set alarm clocks. Have school-age children set their own
alarm clocks to get up in the morning. Praise them for prompt response
to morning schedules and bus pickups.
Leave plenty of extra time. Make sure your child has plenty
of time to get up, eat breakfast, and get to school. For very young
children taking the bus, pin to their shirt or backpack an index card
with pertinent information, including their teacher’s name and
bus number, as well as your daytime contact information.
After school. Review with your child what to do if he or
she gets home after school and you are not there. Be very specific,
particularly with young children. Put a note card in their backpack
with the name(s) and number(s) of a neighbor who is home during the
day as well as a number where you can be reached. If you have not already
done so, have your child meet neighbor contacts to reaffirm the backup
Review your child’s schoolbooks. Talk about what your
child will be learning during the year. Share your enthusiasm for the
subjects and your confidence in your child’s ability to master
the content. Reinforce the natural progression of the learning process
that occurs over the school year. Learning skills take time and repetition.
Encourage your child to be patient, attentive, and positive.
Send a brief note to your child’s teacher. Let the
teachers know that you are interested in getting regular feedback on
how and what your child is doing in school. Be sure to attend back-to-school
night and introduce yourself to the teachers. Find out how they like
to communicate with parents (e.g., through notes, e-mail, or phone calls).
Convey a sincere desire to be a partner with your children’s teachers
to enhance their learning experience.
Familiarize yourself with the other school professionals.
Make an effort to find out who it is in the school or district who can
be a resource for you and your child. Learn their roles and how best
to access their help if you need them. This can include the principal
and front office personnel; school psychologist, counselor, and social
worker; the reading specialist, speech therapist, and school nurse;
and the after-school activities coordinator.
Let your children know you care. If your child is anxious
about school, send personal notes in the lunch box or book bag. Reinforce
the ability to cope. Children absorb their parent’s anxiety, so
model optimism and confidence for your child. Let your child know that
it is natural to be a little nervous anytime you start something new
but that your child will be just fine once he or she becomes familiar
with classmates, the teacher, and school routine.
Do not overreact. If the first few days are a little rough,
try not to over react. Young children in particular may experience separation
anxiety or shyness initially but teachers are trained to help them adjust.
If you drop them off, try not to linger. Reassure them that you love
them, will think of them during the day, and will be back.
Remain calm and positive. Acknowledge anxiety over a bad
experience the previous year. Children who had a difficult time academically
or socially or were teased or bullied may be more fearful or reluctant
to return to school. If you have not yet done so, share your child’s
concern with the school and confirm that the problem has been addressed.
Reassure your child that the problem will not occur again in the new
school year, and that you and the school are working together to prevent
Reinforce your child’s ability to cope. Give your child
a few strategies to manage a difficult situation on his or her own.
But encourage your child to tell you or the teacher if the problem persists.
Maintain open lines of communication with the school.
Arrange play dates. Try to arrange get-togethers with some
of your child’s classmates before school starts and during the
first weeks of schools to help your child re-establish positive social
relationships with peers.
Plan to volunteer in the classroom. If possible, plan to
volunteer in the classroom at least periodically throughout the year.
Doing so helps your child understand that school and family life are
linked and that you care about the learning experience. Being in the
classroom is also a good way to develop a relationship with your child’s
teachers and classmates, and to get firsthand exposure to the classroom
environment and routine. Most teachers welcome occasional parent help,
even if you cannot volunteer regularly.
Go for quality, not quantity. Your child will benefit most from one
or two activities that are fun, reinforce social development, and teach
new skills. Too much scheduled time can be stressful, especially for
young children, and may make it harder to concentrate on schoolwork.
When evaluating extracurricular activities, consider your family schedule
and personal energy level. Multiple activities per child may be too
much to manage, particularly if the activities have overlapping times,
disparate locations, require your attendance, or disrupt the dinner
Select activities where you have someone with whom you can carpool.
Even if you are available to drive most days, you will need backup sometimes.
Choosing activities that occur on-site after school will also minimize
Find out from the school or teacher which days will be heavy homework
or test study days and schedule extracurricular activities accordingly.
If your child does not want to participate in regular, organized extracurricular
activities, you may want to consider other options to help build interests
and social skills. For example, check out the local library for monthly
reading programs, find out if your local recreation or community center
offers drop-in activities, or talk to other parents and schedule regular
play dates with their children.
When Problems Arise
These recommendations can contribute to a positive and productive
school experience for most children. Some children may exhibit more
extreme opposition to or fear of school or may be coping with more specific
learning or psychological difficulties.
If your child demonstrates problems that seem extreme in nature or
go on for an extended period, you may want to contact the school to
set up an appointment to meet with your child’s teachers and school
psychologist. They may be able to offer direct or indirect support that
will help identify and reduce the presenting problem. They may also
suggest other resources within the school and the community to help
you address the situation.
While children can display a variety of behaviors, it is generally
wise not to over-interpret those behaviors. More often than not, time
and a few intervention strategies will remedy the problem. Most children
are wonderfully resilient and, with your support and encouragement,
will thrive throughout their school experience.
Clark, L. (1996). SOS: Help for parents (2nd ed.). Berkley,
CA: Parents’ Press. ISBN: 0935111204.
Dawson, M. P. (2004). Homework: A guide for parents. In A. Canter,
L. Paige, M. Roth, I. Romero, & S. Carroll (Eds.), Helping children
at home and school II: Handouts for families and educators. Bethesda,
MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Rimm, S. (1996). Dr. Sylvia Rimm’s smart parenting: How
to raise a happy, achieving child. New York: Crown. ASIN: 0517700638.
National Association of School Psychologists— www.nasponline.org
Parent Information Center— www.parentinformationcenter.org
Ted Feinberg, EdD, NCSP, served upstate New York schools as a
school psychologist for more than 30 years and currently is an Assistant
Executive Director of the National Association of School Psychologists.
Katherine C. Cowan is Director of Marketing and Communications for
NASP. This material is adapted from their article posted previously
on the NASP and Teachers First (NITV, Inc.) websites.
© 2004 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340
East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814—(301) 657-0270.