The Backpack Blues: Navigating Back-to-School Stress
By: Jacob Lowe, MS, TLLP
As the vibrant days of summer give way to the warm tones of autumn, a familiar, yet demanding season draws upon us: the beginning of a new school year. While this time carries with it the promise of new beginnings, rekindled friendships, and vast amounts of opportunities to learn, it also brings with it a fair share of challenges and stressors for both parents and students alike.
The yearly transition we make from relaxed summer days to the regimented routines of school weeks has the potential to evoke a multitude of emotions, ranging from excitement to apprehension. For parents, concerns about academics, social interactions, and managing an ever-busy house, all can come together to create a storm of stress. Meanwhile, students grapple with the pressures of adapting to a new (and increasingly challenging) academic schedule, along with navigating and maintaining interperosonal relationships with peers.
As intimidating as these obstacles may seem, there are a multitude of strategies that can help to empower both parents and students to navigate this transitional period with grace, and resilience. Throughout the rest of this post, we will take time to discuss factors that contribute to back-to-school stress, and identify practical approaches that are geared towards transforming this potentially overwhelming time into an opportunity for growth, connection, and shared accomplishments.
The Usual Subjects: Factors (and Solutions) for Back-to-School Stress
- Change in Routine: The shift from a flexible summer schedule to a rigid school routine can be incredibly jarring and may lead to stress for both parents and students. While we may think that the change in our daily routine is the largest factor causing stress, we can also look towards the change in our sleep schedules as well. For those of us not receiving our required amount of sleep, we may find ourselves struggling with taking care of ourselves in the morning and maintaining our energy levels throughout the day.
- Gradual Adjustment: Research has shown that it can be beneficial to implement subtle changes in your schedule during the weeks leading up to the beginning of school. Once your children are 1-2 weeks out from their first day, begin gradually shifting meal and activity times to align with their school schedules.
- Practice Run: Have a "mock school day" where you follow the school routine, from waking up to going to bed, to help everyone get back into the groove. This also provides family units with the opportunity to identify where challenges may arise, and to work together in finding solutions
- Academic Pressure: As students’ progress through their assigned curriculums, they may begin to experience pressure to excel academically, or to “keep up” with other students. Along with this, parents may also find themselves worrying about how their children are performing. Ultimately, the expectation to excel academically, especially with new challenges like higher grade levels, or tougher subjects, can create stress for both parents and students.
- Set Realistic Goals: Parents and students should approach the setting of academic goals in a collaborative fashion. Encourage students to spend time at the beginning of their school year establishing S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goals that they can pursue and achieve throughout the school year.
- Identifying Resources: If your child begins voicing challenges relating to their ability to productively study, or stay on task in the classroom, don’t hesitate to do research on what their school has to offer with regards to academic supports (e.g., being able to take tests in quieter environments, tutoring). You may also want to consider a neuropsychological evaluation to better understand any root issues that may be contributing to their difficulties (especially if you saw the same issues the year prior).
- Social Challenges: Navigating new social dynamics, maintaining relationships with old acquaintances, or finding people with similar interests, can certainly lead to stress and worry around how one “fits in” with those around them. Parents may also notice their children struggling to connect with others, and feel uncertain about how they can assist them.
- Role-Playing: Sit down with your child and gently explore what may be causing them stress or worry around socializing. Do they have any fears related to saying “the wrong thing”, or not knowing what to say at all? Once you both are able to identify where the challenge lies, you can work together to create imaginative scenarios where your child encounters that fear, and has the opportunity to respond in a productive way.
- Clubs and Activities: Encourage your children to explore the variety of clubs that are offered at their school that align with their current interests. Should those not provide them with what they are looking for, it may be worthwhile to take a stab at something completely different. While it can be intimidating to dive into the unknown, it may have the potential to plant a seed of inspiration.
- Time Management: For both parents and students, balancing school, extracurricular activities, family commitments, and personal time, can become incredibly overwhelming, and may lead to unavoidable stress.
- Time Blocking: Once students (and parents) have received their schedules for academic/extracurricular commitments, convert those schedules into either a physical/digital calendar that can be seen by all members of the family. This can also include important due dates for assignments, or major events for individual activities.
- Prioritize Tasks: Once you get into the school year, both yourselves and your children will begin to learn what activities/subjects may require the most time/effort to complete. Once you identify what those are, utilize to-do list formats to organize these responsibilities by importance/deadlines.
Above all of these, make sure that you spend time with your children emphasizing the importance of open communication with regard to their struggles. It can be easy for us to lose track of the fact that school can be stressful for all who are involved, but when you are able to approach the challenges your children are facing from a place of curiosity, rather than a place of criticism, you teach them that it is okay to make mistakes. In fact, ironically enough, making those mistakes is one of the most important parts of learning.
With that being said, spend time with your children celebrating the effort that they are putting towards their personal growth. Even if they are still not quite reaching the goals that have been set, acknowledging when they are taking steps in the right direction as part of their journey can be pivotal.
Remember, each family’s situation is unique, so please adapt these strategies to fit your specific needs and circumstances. By taking the time to address these factors, and employ these strategies, you and your family will be better equipped to navigate the back-to-school season with confidence, understanding, and success.