Six things to think about as the new school year is starting

Regardless of the growing excitement about going back to school, there also can be mounting anxiety.

Sigh. Summer is winding down in the Northwest. The unmistakable signs are here — brisk mornings, shorter days and back-to-school sales.

Kids have been getting bored for a while now and looking forward to “real” school, new backpacks, new classes, new teachers and seeing old friends that haven’t been around over the summer.

It’s all been complicated by the pandemic. Last year was an unusual year with Zoom classes, hybrid instruction and lowered expectations overall.

With the decreasing infection rate, and the opening of restaurants, we were returned to some semblance of normal. But the latest surge, powered by the delta variant, has changed everything. We’re back to indoor masks and an increase in anxiety. It’s made going back to school more worrisome for parents and kids.

The good news is that schools are highly controllable environments. This will make it possible for school administrators to make schools as safe as they can be under the circumstances. Kids are used to masks and, let’s face it, children are often more adjustable than their parents.

Finally, schools are open. Let’s hope they stay that way.

I was one of those kids that always liked school. I liked to have a large package of pencils, which I would sharpen endlessly. My plaid pencil case was filled to the brim. Buying school supplies helped me anticipate the new school year and psychologically prepare for the coming season. (Of course, as I got older, especially in high school, my enthusiasm waned. I didn’t want the lazy days of summer to ever end!)

Despite the pandemic, parents are happy when school starts. The less-structured days of summer were fun, but younger kids like structure and predictability, too. School provides the rhythm that young kids prefer — knowing what’s in front of them and what’s expected.

Regardless of the growing excitement, there also can be mounting anxiety. Will my old friends still like me? Will I make new friends? What if I hate my teacher? What if she hates me? Will I get good grades? There is often a long list of concerns.

Here are some helpful considerations:

Think about ground rules for the coming school year. What are your goals for each child? What do they hope to accomplish? What about bedtimes? Electronics? Social media? Texting? Homework expectations? This is the time to consider the structures you want in place as the school year opens.

Call a family meeting before school takes off. Bring everyone together for a family meeting when you have made your decisions. Discuss these issues with your kids. On some issues, small amounts of negotiation make sense, but figure out in advance what and where you’re willing to bend and where you want to hold the line.

Some grades are big step up in demand. Third grade, seventh grade, ninth grade and 11th grade are big jumps in demand in school — there is more need for sustained attention, more homework and harder work. Be prepared! If kids employ the same effort they had for the year before in these grades, they will be shocked! And remember, last year’s expectations were lowered due to online schooling.

Reassurance isn’t always helpful. Let kids express their fears. Listen, without trying to make them feel better. Ask them how they might handle problems if they do arise. Let them find their own solutions.

Limit screen time. I am very concerned that kids have opened up the screen-time floodgates during the pandemic. I get it. Many parents are working from home. But with schools opening, we need to pull the reins back in.

Sleep is important. Teens tend to stay up late texting their buddies. Good school performance requires enough sleep, at least eight to 10 hours for teenagers.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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