Back-to-school season is a time filled with excitement, anticipation, and more than a little anxiety for kids and parents alike. As schedules change and demands intensify, it can be challenging to figure out how to help our kids and ourselves navigate the shift into fall. Fear not, because today we’ve got a backpack full of tips and tricks from the experts on Gateways’ staff – drawing from their experience as special educators, mental health providers, and parents themselves – to make the return to school smoother and more enjoyable for everyone. Whether you’re part of a neurodiverse family or simply looking for some valuable back-to-school wisdom, keep reading because we’ve got you covered!
1. Set clear expectations and build manageable routines.
Many of us experience heightened levels of anxiety when faced with unpredictable situations or sudden changes. Establishing routines and setting clear expectations with kids can mitigate this anxiety by providing a familiar framework, reducing the likelihood of meltdowns and behavioral outbursts. When expectations are consistently reinforced through routines, kids are more likely to make positive choices.
Ali Shwartz, Mental Health Specialist: At the beginning of the school year, we have a discussion with our kids where we ask them what they need when they get home from school and explain what we, as parents, need from them. This includes expectations around behavior, food, bedtime, and more, as well as visual checklists.
Brian Coonley, Director of Professional Development and Consultation: For educators, set-up your routines for teaching, prepping and personal times now. Follow them from the start of the year and it will make sticking to them easier.
2. Make a checklist and/or a visual schedule.
One great way to build routine into your family’s day is to make a checklist for before and after school, which can help kids shift between school and home time by structuring that transition.
For before school, include things like:
- Get dressed
- Eat breakfast
- Brush teeth
- Pack snacks and lunchbox
For after school, you might include:
- Unpack backpack and lunch box
- Put school papers away
- Grab a snack (see below on food)
Having these routines in place not only helps kids prepare and know what to expect, but it also improves focus and empowers them to develop a sense of independence and self-control. By knowing what is expected and having a routine to follow, kids are better able to stay on task, take ownership of their actions, and gradually build their skills and confidence.
Additionally, incorporating a visual into the checklist (in the form of photos, stickers, or illustrations, for example) is a great way to engage pre-readers or students with reading challenges and to provide a framework for all kids to communicate their needs and preferences.
Sharon Goldstein, Director of Day School Programs: In our house we have a white board calendar that has the activities, meetings, and social things written on it. Each family member has a different color so you can look any time and see what is coming up.
3. Use social stories.
Social stories depict upcoming events or routines using concrete, first-person language and images and other visual cues to allow the reader to picture themselves within a new setting, or process an upcoming change. They are another tool that can help create structure and predictability in your child’s day as they transition out of summer and into school.
When expectations are outlined for kids with visuals and narratives, it can ease transitions and lead to greater success for students. Create your own social stories with this app or check out some of Gateways’ printable High Holiday social stories!
Tali Cohen-Carrus, Senior Director of Programs: We love to use social stories to ease transitions, both in the Gateways Jewish Education Programs and in my own family with my toddler. A simple story describing what the new setting and routines will look like, including photographs of the classroom, teachers, etc., helps students know what to expect, which reduces anxiety and allows the child to process the transition in advance.
4. Prepare and plan ahead when possible…
At nighttime, get as much ready for the day for you and your kids as you can. It seems obvious, but laying out clothes, getting lunches mostly packed, etc., makes for a calmer morning and an easier, more productive start to the day.
Amy Schulman, Director of Development: Part of our evening routine includes preparing as much as possible for the next morning. We know that mornings often get rushed, so we try to have our kids pick out their clothes and snacks, and even help make their own lunches at night.
Ali: A tip for picky eaters or food-anxious kids is to plan dinners with the kids on Sundays ahead of time so that everyone knows what we will be eating for the week. That way, the kids are more invested in and present at meals, and we’re less likely to get into last-minute arguments about what we’re eating. For snacks after school, we discuss beforehand what snacks they can take: e.g., one from the snack drawer and one from the fridge.
5. …But don’t forget to make time to relax!
When everyone arrives home from school, it can be tempting to focus immediately on all the things that still need to happen before bedtime. However, building in and encouraging some intentional relaxation and decompression time is an important strategy to minimize anxiety and prevent burnout. Taking moments to clear our minds helps kids and adults stay in the moment and reduces worry about the future.
Ali: The school year is very anxiety-provoking for both kids and parents and we typically give our kids some down time after they unpack from school, with little to no demands.
Brian: Make sure to find ‘you’ time. Taking moments for yourself will help you to be flexible and expect the unexpected.