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How to Cope With the Back-to-School Blues

How parents can help when the first few weeks in school don't go as planned

Published on: September 07, 2018

sad student

The first day of school is exciting and scary for kids and parents alike. We’ve done our back-to-school shopping, eased back into routines and addressed separation anxiety.

Sometimes the transition to a new school year is hard anyway. Big changes like starting middle school or switching districts can make it harder, but even smaller changes can throw a kid off. What do you do when the first day isn’t fun? 

Whether a best friend got assigned to a different class or a big, new school is bewildering, parents can help kids turn a rough start into a great school year. Many of the same coaching strategies are helpful for a wide variety of challenges adjusting to a new school year.

Get support 

“One of the biggest things that catches people is adjusting to different teachers from grade to grade,” says John Taylor, a counselor at B.F. Day Elementary School in Seattle who has also worked with middle schoolers. “Especially at the elementary level, relationships with teachers are huge. Seek opportunities to bridge that relationship with the next adult.” 

Don’t hesitate to touch base with the teacher before the problem gets serious. “Try to identify the underlying concerns. There may be bullying or a problematic seating assignment,” says Taylor. Occasionally, a teacher and student may be incompatible, but Taylor cautions against assuming the worst. “Go into the conversation with the teacher with an open mind and be willing to accept feedback on how to coach your kid to succeed in the new environment.”  
As your child gets older, they can start learning to advocate for themselves. “We want the leaders of tomorrow to be able to ask for help. We need to empower our kids with the tools to talk to their teachers or a counselor. Going to the counselor’s office isn’t a sign of weakness. A counselor is a good point person for solving personal, social, or academic problems,” says Taylor. 

Accentuate the positive

It’s human nature to focus on a problem, but it’s not always productive. “Unpack what is going well, and try to build from there,” advises Taylor. Especially once they’re on social media, kids can feel like the only one having a hard time. But comparing yourself to others is detrimental.

“Let your child know that it is okay to feel nervous. That’s normal,” says Taylor. “Remind kids of their own past success.”

When things go wrong, kids’ self-esteem can take a hit. Remind them that they have met similar challenges in the past — like making friends at summer camp. This shifts the framework away from, “What’s wrong with me?” to “How can I do this?” and reminds them of skills they already have for dealing with this new situation.

Have fun

A serious problem deserves a serious solution, but it does not deserve every waking minute of your or your child’s attention. “Having lots of good experiences inside and out of school is protective,” says Taylor.

Create space and time for your child to continue doing the things they love to do. Even though it is scary to join a new club or activity when school is already overwhelming, the time spent can boost happiness and self-esteem, and lead to making new friends — all of which can help.

“It’s also helpful to support the maintenance of existing friendships,” says Taylor.

Old friendships are intrinsically valuable and playing with a good friend is a powerful antidote to feeling lonely at school.

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