As adults, it has been many years since we had the privilege of a 3 month hiatus like our children do during the summer. We may even be envious of their extended sweatpants wearing, video game playing, carefree days. Meanwhile we remain chugging away at our habitual work day routines, clutching our coffee through crusty sleep deprived eyes. Because of this, it is easy to forget how challenging the end of summer is for children of all ages. During the first few weeks of school it is not uncommon for anxiety symptoms such as tears, anger outbursts, insomnia, chore refusal and mysterious stomachaches to occur. So why is the beginning of a new school year so anxiety provoking?
Disruption in routine
A typical six hour school day is highly organized with clear start and end times, scheduled meals, defined academic tasks, homework assignments with deadlines, written rules and codes of conducts, reduced electronics use and constant adult contact. Then come those summer months! While kids’ time may be somewhat structured depending on age and extracurricular involvement, it is nowhere near the routine they experience during the academic year. The average American student enjoys approximately 70 days of summer break. New research suggests it takes 66 days to form a habit. Thus, those 70 days of staying up late, sleeping in, lounging in pajamas while raiding the refrigerator periodically throughout the day has disrupted a year’s worth of school year customs. In doing so it has also disrupted circadian rhythms in charge of sleep, digestion and hormonal functioning. Add puberty into the mix and metabolic functioning is even more erratic.
With each new school year comes increased social and academic expectations from the previous year as our children grow older, develop increased autonomy and learning capacity. Each year will be more rigorous than the last. This is ingrained in our children every time a parent or teacher states “you’re not in kindergarten anymore”, “I’m not going to hand hold through this year” or “you guys are old enough to do this on your own now.” While children desire freedom, the anticipation of increased independence can also be very anxiety provoking. What will be expected? What if they do not succeed? What if they disappoint? These noisy questions can feel crowding and difficult to quiet.
During summer, our children’s social circles dramatically shrink. Summer sports, camps and family gatherings offer significant time for friends. However, it is not the same diversity of peers and adults that is represented during the school day. Come fall, students must acclimate to new teachers with varying social and performance expectations. Will these teachers be kind? Will they be easy? Will they be boring? Strict? Helpful? These crowding questions will happen with every new adult throughout the day. That’s a lot of questions. Now add a dramatically more diverse peer population with whom your child is exposed to. Some of these peers will be friends, some will not. How will they navigate these other children in the hallway, form friendships during school and maintain them after? What will be said about them on social media? Will they get likes? DMs? These relationships do not end at 3pm when the bell rings and neither do these worries.
Unexpected physical environment
Whether your student is changing schools or merely classrooms, they will be in an unfamiliar space as their environment changes every year. Desk arrangements, lighting, room colors and sounds will be experienced differently in each new setting. These environmental elements are also correlated with attention and academic learning performance. New locker placements and routes to classes during passing periods can increase anxieties around directional orientation and time management. These are just the physical changes of space that could create increased hypervigilance and nervousness. Now factor in that children are constantly growing and physically developing with ever changing body shapes, heights and voices. Friends from last year will not look the same this year and that too will inspire the unknown.
How to help
In the matter of one day we often expect our children to relinquish summer and dive into the icy cold waters of the school year. But it doesn’t have to be a splash of anxiety. As adults we can help transition our kids back into the academic routine.
- Get circadian rhythms back on track by creating routine at least two weeks in advance. This includes hard times for electronics, hygiene, sleep/wake and meals.
- Discuss school year expectations early. Curfew, electronics time, homework completion, social media monitoring, chores, etc. should be clearly defined before the school year begins.
- Do a dry run. Bring your child to the school before it begins to find their locker, observe the seating arrangements, locate the bathroom, etc.
- Send transitional notes with them. It may be cheesy but even teenagers need to carry their parents support with them.
- Provide small pocket fidgets. When things get scary, stress balls and magnets can relieve tension and promote focus.
- Acknowledge the scary. Talk about it!