As the new school year approaches, it’s a time of new beginnings: new teachers, new classmates and making new friends. For some kids, it could mean going to a new school, including first-timers starting kindergarten. All of this “newness” is very exciting, but it can also be stressful for children with so many unknowns.
Will any of my friends be in my class?
Who will I sit with at lunch?
What if I miss the bus?
Will the teacher be nice or mean?
Will I fit in?
Are my clothes OK?
With some helpful advice, parents can give kids a healthy mindset towards the coming school year.
Be wary of giving your child blanket reassurance that they have nothing to worry about. At that point in time their worries seem real to them. Instead, listen to what their fears are about school and problem solve together. Work collaboratively to help give them ownership in finding solutions. Worries often need to be talked through. Let them choose what to wear on the first day of school and perhaps let them choose their lunch. Maybe pack a special snack and leave extra time to get out the door those first few days to help her avoid being late for school. Having extra time can also reduce your stress level. If you’re stressed, kids often pick up on it and it can add to their already real concerns.
Dial it down one notch at a time
Though Jay Genova, Executive Director of Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service, said he doesn’t see kids specifically for back-to-school worries, thought it does come up. To prepare children for the coming year he suggested the last week or two of August parents begin to add more structure to kids’ schedules.
“We kind of have to adjust, acclimate our systems,” Genova said. “Kids tend to stay up too late on weekends. My guess is that everybody stays up later in summer. Parents can start to wind down those bedtimes gradually, not all of a sudden. Sleep is an important health habit that often gets sacrificed…”
Genova noted that for upper elementary grades and middle schoolers, structure is good, but anything taken to the extreme isn’t, advising parents not to overschedule their kids. “There’s always the potential to overschedule our children,” he said. “Parents want to expose them to very worthwhile activities… dance lessons, sports, music lessons. They’re all wonderful things, [but] too many in a week can cause the child to have stress. Build in some free time when planning your child’s schedule.”
At the heart of kids’ stress
When asked about kids having back-to-school worries, Genova said he thinks these things are related to not having enough sleep. Sometimes things seem worse than they are. Thoughts can be catastrophic thoughts.
“Hear what your child is thinking. Our thoughts are often negative,” Genova said. “What we need to do is challenge what our kids are thinking. [For example you could say,] ‘Not all days will be bad. Do you think every day is going to be a bad day? What if your teacher is really nice?’”
For kids who didn’t end the previous year well, Genova advises parents to discuss it with their child. Ask them what can we do differently this year? Kids may say, “I don’t know,” or, “I guess I’ll have to work harder.” “Having a collaborative discussion with your child allows them to help solve their issues with you,’ Genova said. “Some kids have difficulties getting to school on time. Difficulties are different for everyone. Some very bright children struggle getting to school on time.”
He added,“There are lots of resources offered by the schools, the district. Take advantage of them. Sometimes kids are embarrassed to get help. They want to do it on their own, especially upper elementary and middle school kids. My suggestion is to encourage them to get help and not be embarrassed. Sometimes we overvalue independence and that may make us feel shameful. No one does anything alone. LeBron James didn’t get to where he is without help. He had teachers and coaches helping him.”
Healthy choices for kids
Registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Life Focus Nutrition Linda Arpino, RDN, CDN, FAND, works with families in her Rye Brook and Stamford, Conn., offices in designing healthy, nutritious meals, menu planning and recipes. Arpino agrees with Genova that children should have a good night’s sleep and get back to a school schedule to aid in stress management. She also noted the importance of getting in the routine of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at a consistent time.
“Our body has biorhythms,” Arpino said. “When it is disrupted, it affects the kinds of food you eat. It tends to make the body to crave more of the refined carbs: breads, pasta and sweets.
“It’s really important to eat regular meals that are nutritious, not grabbing a piece of fruit on the run. Eating regular meals three times a day, including the three food groups at each meal, having protein (beans, lentils, lean meat, poultry, fish), in addition to vegetables and fruits, and high fiber grains.”
Slow it down
When asked why she thinks students are stressed to start off the new year, Arpino replied that it’s the uncertainties of classwork and expectations, and seeing new faces. In addition to getting a good night’s sleep, Arpino stressed the importance of allowing enough time to eat a breakfast that includes protein, fiber rich grains and fruit or vegetables to enable slow, steady digestion, which helps the whole nervousness system, including focus in the classroom.
“The focus of a child’s diet is not having mac and cheese all the time… try to avoid convenience foods,” she said.
Arpino suggested making plates colorful and to prep meals ahead. Swap out the mac and cheese for puréed cannellini beans poured into red sauce and over pasta. “They won’t even know,” Arpino said.
Another healthy choice for kids is eating hummus with veggies that Arpino said, “Gives a nice combination of nutrients and B vitamins.”
What other advice would she give parents? Arpino said parents should watch the amount of sugar in their child’s diet: “Too much sugar suppresses their appetite when they’re filling up on empty calories… and to use mealtime as a time to connect with their families.”