Heading back to school in the fall can be an exciting time for students, but it can also be stressful as they adjust to new schedules, teachers, and classmates. They may worry about fitting in, being academically ready, and even being safe at school.
Experts say there are many things parents and guardians can do to smooth the transition, as well as things kids can do to look after their own wellness.
Kelsey MacQueen, head counselor at Eden Prairie’s Central Middle School (CMS), said that one of the most important things families can do is get into a healthy routine. This includes regular mealtimes, bedtimes, and wake times, even on weekends.
MacQueen said that taking the time to become comfortable with their school surroundings and schedule is also key for students. “I have students look at the map to figure out the most direct route between classes. That can help ease the anxiety of such a large building,” she said.
During the school day, if kids are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, MacQueen said reaching out to friends or a trusted teacher can help. She said if talking to someone they feel safe with doesn’t help, students should reach out to their school counselor or social worker.
“That is why we are here — to help ease those anxieties and talk about coping strategies,” she added. “We can show students different tools they can use in class, or to calm themselves down before going into school.”
MacQueen said that taking small breaks during the day can also help. Last year, CMS created a Zen Den designed to accommodate 1-2 students at a time.
“It was wonderful to have a space where kids could go and not just sit in the waiting room,” she said.
Located in the counseling office area, the cozy room features beanbag chairs, a miniature sandbox zen garden, art supplies, warm lighting, a weighted blanket, and more.
“Some kids really need to go sit on a bean bag chair and compose themselves for a few minutes,” MacQueen said. “Oftentimes, that’s enough for them and then they go back to class.” If students are not successfully processing through their anxiety, CMS counseling staff will check in with them.
Programs that offer extra support
Making sure to eat nutritious meals is also important, MacQueen said. She said she welcomed Minnesota’s recent passage of universal free school meals, which gives each student one free reimbursable breakfast and one free reimbursable lunch each day, regardless of income or financial need. No paperwork or qualification is needed.
Eden Prairie Schools also provides additional options to help combat child food insecurity. The Every Meal Food Program provides free weekly food pickup for families experiencing financial need, and program directors can connect families with other resources.
Being prepared with the correct school supplies and bringing them to class daily is also important to feeling confident and ready to learn. If financial challenges are a barrier to obtaining school supplies, families can get assistance through EP Schools’ Back to School Supplies Program.
At Eden Prairie High School, a new free school store called the Eagle Nation Station will also provide food, personal care and household items to students and families that need them. Eagle Nation Station is in need of donations and volunteers throughout the year — learn more here.
Additional wellness tips
In a recent post about student mental health and back-to-school anxiety, Washburn Center for Children‘s chief clinical officer Jenny Britton said, “Those carefree days of summer can quickly turn to heated moments as we come off of two months of less structure, different sleep schedules and more independent play.”
Washburn and other mental health and wellness experts offered some additional advice for helping children and their families navigate the back-to-school transition.
- Build connection. Talk regularly with your child about how they are feeling about school and their friendships. Be a dependable, safe person they know will listen to them whenever needed.
- Keep in touch. Families who spent a lot of time together over the summer can ease separation anxiety by making sure to connect meaningfully in the time they do have before and after school, and on weekends. However, if a child says they don’t feel well or don’t want to go to school, experts suggest having gentle conversations to understand why. Another suggestion is to write encouraging notes for your child to read during the day.
- Build confidence. Help children and teens identify their personal strengths and how they can use those abilities to navigate challenging experiences.
- Maintain consistency. Regular, predictable family mealtimes and weekend schedules can help calm nerves and help children feel grounded and secure. Regular homework check-ins, a consistent and non-distracting environment to do school work, and scheduled work times can help children build good study habits.
- Focus on wellness. Engage in and teach children self-care, including regular exercise and practicing deep breathing and relaxation throughout the day. Expressing gratitude by keeping a journal or having conversations about what did or didn’t go well on a given day has also been shown to improve well-being.
- Be patient. The first weeks can be rocky as students navigate the transition period from summer to school. Show compassion and be flexible and forgiving about mistakes. Recognize that children might be emotional and exhausted during the first weeks back to school, sports, and other activities.
- Seek professional support if necessary. There is a difference between normal back-to-school anxiety and an anxiety disorder. If adults think that they or their child may need professional support, experts advise seeking help as soon as possible to allow healing to begin.
Ultimately, MacQueen said that it’s important for families to remember this: “Adolescents and kids in general are so resilient. It might be a hard few days, and they’re going to get right back into it. And our staff are going to take the time at the beginning of the year to welcome them back in and build community.”
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