When shiny new lunch boxes and backpacks appear in stores, Kristin Kane’s kids tense up. Her high school aged son becomes quiet. Her daughter, who is just about to start middle school, gets testy. And that’s when Kane, a mother of three from Virginia, knows the back-to-school jitters have arrived.
“My 11-year-old asks daily how many days she has before school starts,” says Kane, whose son and daughter have learning and attention issues. Her daughter, for example, struggles with reading, and the thought of facing new textbooks and assignments makes her stressed. “As a parent, it’s important to get to the source of that anxiety.”
The start of the school year always brings mixed feelings. No more lazy days at the pool or camp. So long to staying up late and roaming the neighborhood with friends. For many kids, the season is tinged by anxiety. Will my teacher be nice? How will I make new friends? Do I really have to learn long division?
For children who aren’t typical learners, the fears can be particularly intense. They wonder if their teachers will understand their perspective or if they’ll have a hard time keeping up with their peers. They might dwell on negative experiences from prior years. They might worry that they won’t be able to sit still, or understand the reading assignment or make friends. “For kids with learning and attention issues, like dyslexia and ADHD, the anxiety is magnified,” said Mark Griffin, founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, an independent school for students with language-based learning disabilities in Connecticut.
The good news is there are many ways that parents can help their children relieve stress around the beginning of school, including the First-Day Ready Guide from Understood.org – a free online resource and community for parents of the 1 in 5 kids with learning and attention issues. These brain-based conditions vary in severity, but can cause difficulties with reading and writing, math, organization and focus.
As the beginning of school approaches, Griffin recommends that parents stay alert for the signs of anxiety in their children. While some signs can differ based on your child’s age, the main ones include changes in behavior, irritability, changes in eating or sleeping patterns and unexplained stomach aches and headaches. These could be signs that your child is struggling at school – potentially with learning and attention issues – and needs some extra help.
So how can you help your child through this tense transition?
Looking for more tips to help your child through the first day of school – and the rest of the year? Or maybe you’re looking for a place to chat with other parents who understand the joys and frustrations of raising children with learning and attention difficulties?
One way to help you and your child better manage the challenges of school is to find a supportive community of parents. For parents of children with learning and attention issues, one such community is Understood.org. There you can connect with other parents who are dealing with similar issues. You can also tap into personalized resources and expert advice. The First-Day Ready Guide – tips compiled from experts and educators– is loaded with ideas to make the transition back to school easier for kids of all ages.
“Connecting with others dealing with similar situations helps our family be better able to speak to the school, pediatrician and even each other about what we are experiencing at home,” says Kane.
Talk through it
The most important thing parents can do, Griffin says, is to keep conversations open-ended. Check in with your child before school starts, on the first day and throughout the school year.
Keep an open mind when listening to your kids. Not being able to read aloud to the class or tripping in gym class might sound silly or trivial to you, but these fears might be very real to your child. Rather than discount children’s fears or make blanket statements such as “everything is going to be ok,” validate your children's feelings. Tell them that you understand. Then help them brainstorm solutions to potential problems.
It’s important for parents to keep their own anxieties in check. Project confidence that you will get through this together. “I think in the past, both my wife and I have been guilty of letting our kids see our anxiety,” said Jon Morin, the father of a 7-year-old boy with ADHD and autism and a 15-year-old boy who struggles with social skills. “They’re both really sensitive kids and they pick up on others’ emotions. Now we’re really mindful of how we’re talking to them. We’re careful not to create an issue where there is no issue.”
Connect with school staff
It’s important to talk with teachers early in the school year. There is often a formal process organized by the school for kids who receive special education. But any parent can ask to meet with school staff.
“I call a meeting with the [administrator], the guidance counselor and all the teachers who will be working with my kid. It’s a 20-minute meet-and-greet, so we can all get to know each other,” said Kane. Her children feel more relaxed and confident when they know their teachers – and know they are aware of their learning and attention issues.
Griffin recommends designating an adult, like a teacher, guidance counselor or coach who can be a point person for a child with learning or attention issues. If kids forget their locker combinations or lose their schedules, they know they can go to this person for help without judgement.
“It’s good to know that there’s someone who understands them,” he says.
One way to relieve some fear of the unknown is to schedule a visit to the school before classes begin, said Griffin. He advises parents to walk through the hallways with their children, if the school allows, to help them figure out how to get from one class to the next.
“For kids with learning and attention issues, just knowing what everything looks like, where everything is, really makes a large difference,” he said.
Kane and her daughter Lorelai, for example, walk the dog around the grounds of the girl’s new middle school, helping Lorelai, who has dyslexia and an anxiety disorder, learn her way around the campus – and create positive associations.
Stick to a schedule
Morin starts preparing his sons two or three weeks before school starts. The boys go to bed earlier and get up earlier. Mornings are more structured, too. “We start kind of gradually easing them into that school year routine,” he says.
Morin also creates a schedule to help his younger son, Benjamin, understand how his day will be structured. This helps Benjamin be more calm about his school day – reducing anxiety and hyperactivity. Morin even created a visual schedule before Benjamin could read, using pictures to represent the day’s activities.
Give your kids a role
Parents and experts recommend letting children take an active role in choosing and organizing school supplies. They’ll be more enthusiastic to open notebooks and folders in patterns that they picked out. Guide younger children through creating an organizational system: How can you remember which notebook and folder to take to math class? Would it help if they were the same color? Which color would you like to choose?
Older children need more autonomy as they make these decisions. Kane learned this lesson the hard way. She tried to organize her son’s books and papers, but soon realized her son would only adhere to a system that he created himself.