How to Reduce Back to School Stress

Around the United States, families are getting ready for the first weeks of school. Our family is in the middle of helping our oldest son re-enter mainstream school after a semester of medical leave, while also preparing our daughter to begin kindergarten. As soon as August arrived, we felt the stress rise.New teachers, classrooms, expectations, and classmates – and that’s only a few of the changes! Sights, sounds, specialists, and a full day school day for my daughter are all new as well.It sort of makes my head spin if I think about it too much. And as our anxiety levels increase around these "to dos" our children sense it and their anxiety levels increase as well. So, what do we do?First, begin by encouraging yourself that all will be well because it will be. I believe and trust that it will! Then, ask yourself a very important question: Am I stressed thinking about back-to-school? If your honest answer is yes (to any degree), let the following actionable steps be your guide:

1. Check in with Yourself

Are you through-the-roof overwhelmed, not stressed at all, or somewhere in between? Know where you are so you can use the tools below to your advantage.If you are through-the-roof overwhelmed, first and foremost know you are not alone. The first weeks of school can feel stressful for any parent, but especially so for a special needs parent. You are not in this alone, and your feeling of stress is valid. Now let's explore ways to put your mind at ease!I love what Child Mind Institute has to say about anxiety between parent and child:

A big part of treatment for children with anxiety,” explains Dr. Laura Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist, “is actually teaching parents stress tolerance. It’s a simultaneous process—it’s both directing the parent’s anxiety, and then how they also support and scaffold the child’s development of stress tolerance.

This is an area I'm really working on within our family. I am able to recognize and redirect my nervous energy, so I can help my children learn how to do the same. And I have to say, so far it is working wonders!If you're not stressed at all, there are a few tools that you may want to use to set your child up for success in the classroom. Understood.org has excellent, free introduction letters and other printable back-to-school downloads on their site.

2. Listen to and Validate Your Child's Fears

Your child may be feeling excited or anxious – or both – about returning to school. Reading Rockets, a national literacy initiative, puts it well in this post:

Just talking about the upcoming year and changes can help reduce some of that back-to-school anxiety! Talk to your child about exciting new classes, activities, and events that they can participate in during the new school year. If attending a new school, try to schedule a visit before the first day. With older students, it is sometimes helpful to explain the services and accommodations in their IEP so that they know what to expect when school begins.

Remember, a new school year may feel like an entirely new experience to your child. Give them the space and grace to share their fears with you. And, most importantly, love them. If they are not able to articulate how they are feeling, but it is clear to you they are feeling nervous about the upcoming school year, offer their self care comforts and supports whenever possible. Lots of hugs are also never out of the question!

3. Build a Relationship with Your Child's Teacher – and Then Let Go So They Can Do the Same

Collectively, our three children have attended six different schools and learning programs in the past five years. What helped my husband and me as parents and also our three children was our approach to building a relationship with teachers. We treat them like people and people generally respond well to kindness, patience, and compassion. What does this look like in real life? Here are some examples.

  1. Leading up to the first week of school, reach out to your child's teacher either by writing a note by hand, sending an email, or leaving a message on the phone. Keep the message as brief as possible. Let the teacher know you are excited about the upcoming school year. Tell them you know she has a class with many children and parents that all have needs.
  2. Request just a few minutes of her time to share about your child before the school year begins. When you speak with her in person, be mindful of your promise to take only a few minutes of her time. Keep the conversation brief under 10 minutes if you can, unless she extends the time.
  3. At the end of your conversation, ask her the best way to reach her moving forward and thank her for her valuable time.
  4. Then, on the first day of school shake her hand, share any brief parting words you need to and then let go of the reins, hug your little (or big!) one, and walk out of the classroom. This can feel hard. But it’s important that while you grow your relationship with the teacher, you let your child grow his or her own relationship with the teacher too.

And if at any point in time you feel like your child's needs aren't being met, you can address those concerns at that time. But for now focus on the first day and getting started on the right foot!