The Transition Back to School

The experience of going back to school after summer break can differ for everyone.  As a former teacher, I usually entered the new school year with both excited anticipation and anxiety.  I looked forward to meeting my new students, falling back into a routine, and challenging myself creatively.  However, I also dreaded the myriad of changes that came with being back in school, from new technology, to new policies and procedures.  Stressful changes are even more vast for students who are transitioning to a new school, whether it be a move from elementary school to junior high, junior high to high school, high school to college.

With each transition, their expected responsibilities increase. From elementary school to junior high, for example, kids have a new route and possible method of transportation to school, two lockers and combinations, a schedule that requires different materials every period, and at least 8 teachers with their own expectations.  These new responsibilities are important, because they help prepare students for high school and beyond.  However, coupled with changes to peer groups and the pressure to make friends, these responsibilities can feel overwhelming.  Even the most organized student can struggle to adapt to the combination of social and academic change.  Some kids will find school transitions exciting.  There are new clubs, sports, musical opportunities and other activities that were not available to them previously.  Others will feel lost and wonder where they fit in.  Many teens and adolescents develop anxiety or depression through these stressful years, but most also develop resilience and coping skills as well.

There are however, some indicators that a child might be overwhelmed with school stress.  Keep an eye out for any of the following occurring beyond what is typical for that child or teen:

  • Behavioral Changes

    • Avoiding participation in activities that were normally enjoyable

    • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns

    • Abrupt changes in social groups

    • Distancing from family members

  • Physical Changes

    • Complaining of stomach aches or vomiting in the mornings

    • Frequent trips to the school nurse

    • Increase in physical symptoms prior to a test or presentation

  • Emotional Changes

    • Increased irritability or moodiness

    • Frequent crying

    • Expressing worry or fear

What can you do if you notice a child becoming chronically stressed? As a parent, you can be mindful of your child’s experience.  If you notice that your child seems to be struggling with an adjustment getting back to school or starting in a new school, check in with them. Acknowledge the multitude of changes your child is experiencing, and recognize that dealing with all of those changes is difficult.  Encourage them to discuss their feelings at home, and avoid dismissing or brushing off something that seems insignificant.  Continue to engage them in family conversations and activities, and seek appropriate mental health services either at school or in the community when necessary.