It's that time of year again—here's how to recognize and limit school stress in your kids.

By Real Simple Editors
Updated August 08, 2019
Advertisement

As the whole family makes the transition into back-to-school mode, there are a variety of stressors that plague both kids and parents alike, like earlier alarms, demanding homework, and stricter bedtimes (to name a few). And as any parent knows, school stress can start even before the summer is over, thanks to school supply shopping lists, impending fall schedules, and the overall feeling of change in the air.

We spoke to Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids, and Michele Kambolis, a Vancouver-based child and family therapist and author of Generation Stressed: Play-Based Tools to Help Your Child Overcome Anxiety about what parents can do to help the family stay calm under new pressures that are pretty much inevitable at the start of any school year. Below, a few actionable tips from Pope and Kambolis on keeping back-to-school stress at bay.

1. Identify the signs your kids are stressed.

There are a variety of ways stress can express itself, but because it’s often internalized, it can be hard to identify in kids. Look for red flags and common warning signals, such as difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, and changes in behavior (irritability and temper tantrums). Kambolis says 44 percent of kids report having trouble sleeping around the end of summer and start of fall, a clear indicator that the upcoming change in routine is nagging at them.

One thing Kambolis recommends doing is having your kids externalize their stress. Through open dialogue and listening, yes, but also letting them express their worries physically. Kambolis uses an activity she calls a "worry wall," where kids write down what's worrying them on sticky notes and sticking them up on wall to get perspective and compartmentalize their stressors.

2. Listen carefully to your child.

In order to be able to recognize heightened, school-relatd anxiety in your child, you need to open your ears and pay attention to their specific grievances. If your child is complaining about not wanting to go to school or having difficulty doing their work, figure out the root of the problem. Is it a teacher issue? A bully? Are they over-scheduled? Maybe your child feels they're unable to meet expectations they're held to all the time. Parents can likely address most of these problems either at home or by contacting school administrators.

3. Get the kids to bed.

Kids need way more sleep than most people realize. While children in kindergarten up to third grade may require up to 12 hours per night, even high schoolers still need a solid eight to 10 hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Quickly address factors that may be resulting in sleep loss, such as managing a demanding schedule, feeling anxious, or using technology or on social media late at night.

4. Plan ahead for the week.

Managing children can become a point of contention between couples, but by being pro-active, parents can prevent conflict from arising during the week. Have long-term conversations (what goals do we want to set this year?) as well as short-term (how are we going to manage the morning routine?), and create a visual schedule on a white board to keep the whole family informed (more on this later).

5. Get in touch with their teachers if things get out of hand.

Don't complain or point fingers, but ask teachers respectfully for their take on what's going on at home. If your kid seems to be taking an excessive amount of time on nightly assignments—which is then affecting their sleep, mood, and health—it's worth touching base with their teacher to say, "My child is taking X amount of hours to do Y every night, is this how long it should be taking?" Pope says a lot of teachers honestly have no idea how long it's taking kids to complete certain assignments. The teacher might then be able to clarify what your child should and shouldn't be focusing on in order to be more productive and effective.

6. Create a homework contract.

Parents are responsible for making sure kids have time and space to do their work, but they shouldn’t be acting as a tutor, says Pope. A homework contract should outline when the child will do their work (after a snack or before basketball practice, for example) to ensure it gets done—but leaves the grading to the teacher. If you need to, have your kids give up their phones or logout of social media until they've finished what they need to.

7. Use visual schedules.

The start of a new school year means the onset of million different events, activities, play dates, and chores—it's not only stressful for kids, but obviously for parents too. Couples often feel tension when the calendar starts to fill up over who's responsible for what, and when. Kambolis has a helpful fix: "I'm a big fan of the whiteboard," she says. "I've seen family life totally transform just by simply creating a visual schedule where everyone knows what's going on and where they need to be. It can really ground families life."

8. Make time for 'PDF'.

But don't just use your visual schedule for go-go-go activities. You also need to physically fit downtime, family time, and self care into the routine—otherwise it'll just be go, go, go all the time (an easy way to get evenmore stressed out).

In this case, ‘PDF’ stands for playtime (which should be unstructured), downtime (sleep and transition periods), and family time (such as family dinners). While technology can occasionally be a part of PDF, the idea is that these are moments when the family is not plugged in. It's these face-to-face moments that will help kids decompress and reconnect with themselves, family, and friends.