6 Ways to Help Your Child Handle School Stress

Ease concerns and boost their confidence with these expert-approved strategies.

Little boy standing in line for the school bus

Medically reviewed in August 2022

Updated on August 10, 2022

It’s that time again: a brand-new school year. For many elementary school kids, that means different teachers, unfamiliar classmates, mounds of fresh homework—and lots of anxiety.

Andrew Gunter, MD, a pediatrician at Memorial Health in Savannah, Georgia, compares the first day to starting a new job. “It can be stressful—you don’t know what to expect or who your boss is going to be,” he says. “Those are natural fears.”

The unknown isn’t the only drawback, either. After a long, lazy summer, kids can be thrown off their routines, which can exacerbate their apprehension. Uncertainties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic may add a new layer of worry to the first day, as well. Getting back on track can be tough if you’re not prepared.

So, what can parents and guardians do to ease those back-to-school jitters? How can you make reacclimating as painless as possible? And when is a grade-schooler’s stress something more serious? Here what you need to know.

Anticipate and address kids’ fears
Whether they’re on edge about making friends, encountering bullies, or getting good grades, the first step to helping a stressed-out student is to get them talking. “A conversation is always a good start,” says Dr. Gunter. “Ask your kid, ‘Are you worried about anything?’”

Then, listen to their concerns and validate their feelings. Assure them that their anxiety is completely normal, and that they’re not alone.

“Let them that know you had those same fears,” advises Gunter. “It’s very comforting when you have someone who sits with you and says, ‘I went through the same thing.’” Remind your child, too, that as time goes on, these angst-inducing experiences will become part of a familiar routine.

If your child is worried about COVID-19, remember that open communication can help them feel comforted and protected. Even if you can’t relate directly to their experience, it’s important to ask questions about their worries and feelings—and then listen to those answers. Try to provide information in an age-appropriate way without overwhelming them. Learning about effective prevention measures—such as vaccinations and masking—may help kids cope, as well.

The good news: School districts are often open over the summer to address student needs. So, if your child is attending a new school, visit it together before the year begins to get acquainted with classrooms, playgrounds, and teachers. Make it a priority to attend orientation sessions and ask if the school has a “buddy” program to help younger kids find their feet. Game plan your routes to school, whether your child is walking, biking, or riding the bus.

Along with assuaging their fears, it also helps to stoke kids’ enthusiasm for the coming year. “Make it fun to go back,” says Gunter. Talk up the positives, like learning about subjects they love and seeing old buddies. Involve them in shopping for clothes or school supplies, letting them choose pencils, notebooks, and a backpack for themselves.

You might also tease the opportunity to try different afterschool activities. From the school band to a community soccer league, getting involved in extracurriculars can help your child make new friends, develop their skills, “and see what piques their interest,” says Gunter.

Create healthy routines
To ease your child’s mind during those first days, establish a reliable routine that prioritizes healthy, stress-reducing habits. This can include a range of practices, from the simple—like laying out clothes the night before school—to bigger changes, such as designating times for certain activities. These can include:

Sleep: Experts recommend that children ages 6 to 13 sleep between 9 and 11 hours per night. Not getting enough is linked to a higher risk of academic problems and behavioral issues. 

As the summer wanes, Gunter advises moving bedtime up in increments of about 15 minutes per night, starting at least a week before school begins. Begin setting the morning alarm a little earlier each day, as well. This way, he says, “it’s not a last-minute thing, which of course they’ll fight back on.”

Creating a consistent evening schedule may also smooth the way to new bedtimes. Nighttime use of electronic devices can lead to poor sleep, so turn off all gadgets—including TVs, smartphones, tablets, and video games—at least 60 minutes before kids hit the sack. During quiet time, have them brush their teeth, shower, and read to help settle down.

Homework: For many young students, homework is a significant source of post-summer stress. Working around afterschool activities as best you can, block off a time for your child to complete their tasks each day—preferably in a quiet, uncluttered place, like the kitchen table or a home office desk. Unless their homework requires a computer, make sure screens are turned off to reduce distraction.

If you’re present, never do your child’s homework for them. Instead, provide support, motivation, and of course, snacks. If your child has difficulty with organization, a planner or dry-erase board can help them—and you—keep track of test dates, assignments, and extracurriculars.

Eating right: Help kids focus and gear up for each day with a wholesome breakfast. Choose foods low in added sugars, but with plenty of protein, fiber, and healthy fats for lasting energy. Scrambled eggs, low-fat yogurt, fruit, or whole-grain toast with peanut butter are easy options.

For lunch, make it a habit to pack healthy meals at night or have kids buy at school; many districts allow you to maintain an account online. Millions of families are eligible for a nutritious, low- or no-cost breakfast and lunch, as well; check with your school for more information.

Exercising: Physical activity can help elementary schoolers relax and concentrate. Experts recommend children 6 years and older get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity daily. Organized sports, playing outside with friends, or visiting the local playground is often enough to do the trick.

Get organized
Parents and guardians can help kids relax if they’re relaxed themselves—and that means getting your ducks in a row well before the first bell rings. Try to schedule necessary physical exams and vaccinations earlier in the summer, since pediatricians’ offices get a little nuts come August.

“The week before school, everybody needs school physicals,” says Gunter. “There’s a massive push at the end of summer to get all this done.

For children with health conditions like asthma or food allergies, make sure their teachers and the school nurse are aware ahead of time. The nurse should know when and how to administer medications. Take care to fill out related health and emergency contact forms, too.

If you have a child with a 504 plan or an individualized education program (IEP), you’ll want to confirm teachers, schedules, and accommodations for the new year, especially if you’ve moved or switched schools. It’s a good idea to send copies of the IEP to relevant personnel, too—and to ensure your child understands their provided services.

Consider when it’s more than butterflies
Sometimes, a child’s back-to-school distress goes beyond typical jitters. “What happens in some kids is they start having more worry and more fear, and that fear then leads to true anxiety,” Gunter says. “You’ll see this progressive resistance to school—more and more tears as opposed to fewer and fewer.”

It's important to remember that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on the mental health of many kids. Social isolation, interrupted services, and fears for their safety have contributed to higher levels of unhappiness, anxiety, and depression—and strained the resources that typically offer help.

If your child’s struggles are worsening, or if they’re having physical issues linked to stress, like stomachaches or headaches, reach out to your child’s healthcare provider (HCP). A pediatrician’s job, says Gunter, “is to reassure the parent or give them tips and tricks to help their child overcome this.” HCPs can also help diagnose something more serious, he adds, like depression or anxiety, and get kids the support they need.

It's also a wise idea to speak with a teacher, counselor, or administrator about your school’s mental health resources. Many districts have expanded their services to help address issues stemming from the pandemic.

Ultimately, while a new school year may stoke some truly understandable fears, addressing those worries head-on and encouraging good habits can take a load off—for your child and for you.

Article sources open article sources

Lianna Wilson and Sarah Straus. Child Mind Institute. Helping Kids Back Into the School Routine. Last reviewed July 27, 2021.
KidsHealth.org. Back to School. Reviewed August 2018.
Jessie Wolf. Back to school: Tips to help students adjust. Mayo Clinic Health System. August 7, 2018.
HealthyChildren.org (AAP). Back-to-School Tips. Last updated July 11, 2022.
Danielle Pacheco. Back to School Sleep Tips. Sleep Foundation. May 6, 2022.
MedlinePlus. Exercise for Children. Last updated June 10, 2019.
Amanda Morin. 8 steps to kicking off your child’s IEP the right way. Understood.org. Accessed August 3, 2022.
Bob Cunningham. How Do I Get My Child’s IEP Going at the Beginning of the School Year? Understood.org. Accessed August 3, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental Health: COVID-19 Parental Resources Kit. Last reviewed December 13, 2021.
Yale Medicine/Yale Child Study Center. Helping Children Cope with the COVID-19 Pandemic. Accessed August 3, 2022.
Ashley Abramson. American Psychological Association. Children’s mental health is in crisis. January 1, 2022.
Sleep Foundation. Back to School Sleep Tips. Accessed August 10, 2022.
HealthyChildren.org (AAP). How to Reduce Fat and Cho¬lesterol in Your Child's Diet. Last updated August 8, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/HHS. Physical Activity Guidelines for School-Aged Children and Adolescents. May 19, 2019.

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