As the school year approaches, Colleen Geisen, who lives in the Baltimore community of Mount Washington, believes her three children are ready. Ellis, who is starting kindergarten, is already familiar with the school building because of his older siblings. Tatum, who is starting third grade, is comfortable with the routine of elementary school. But Xaviera is going into middle school, and that’s uncharted territory for the family.
“What I’m worried about is, is she ready for the course load?” Geisen says of her daughter, who will start sixth grade in a few weeks. “Will she rise to the occasion?”
The start of any school year is a time of eagerness and anxiety, particularly for families with children starting kindergarten, middle school or high school.
Many kindergartners might navigate school buses for the first time, middle-schoolers face new, more challenging routines, and high-school students are repeatedly told their grades and extracurricular activities will influence their futures.
There are many things parents can do to prepare their children for the start of a school year. But perhaps the most important one is to take a deep breath.
“Families are very anxious these days,” says Laura Brooks, a clinical social worker in private practice in Howard County. “And where does the anxiety start? I think it starts with the parents.”
Brooks says she generally does not treat children, but she often helps adult clients who are concerned about the anxieties expressed by their youngsters.
She offers a typical scenario: A child is clingy and having trouble sleeping before the start of kindergarten. The parents can make things worse by injecting their own concerns. Or the parents can help by listening, asking questions and giving the child options for managing potential challenges, says Brooks.
Having a relaxed attitude, however, is not the same thing as doing nothing. To help children, especially young ones, prepare for school, Emily Wells, a psychologist with the Columbia-based Thrive Mind-Body Healthcare Center, says parents can take kids shopping for school supplies, visit the school, and talk about how the daily routine of the household will change.
Few parents remain dry-eyed the first time they watch their 5-year-old board the school bus or walk into elementary school. But parents do their children a favor by keeping their fears and sentimentality to themselves. To prepare children for the start of their public school careers, the Howard County Library System offers 45-minute “Kindergarten Here We Come” programs in early August, with stories and activities, and the chance for children to board a real school bus.
Just knowing what to expect will ease a child’s mind. Most elementary schools have open houses before the first day, so students can meet their teachers and sometimes sit at their desks, Wells says.
Middle school brings a new set of challenges, she adds. Students must navigate different classrooms, with a variety of teaching styles and expectations. At this age, students should begin advocating for themselves, says Wells. If they believe a grade is not fair, they can ask a teacher about it, or ask how to earn extra credit.
Being organized becomes more important, as students juggle short-term and long-term homework assignments.
“The demands are much higher in middle school,” says Ellen Kaplan, a former special education teacher who now works as an education advocate and leads the executive function program at Thrive. She says parents can prepare students by showing them the teacher websites they will be relying on for information, and by letting them talk to a friend or older sibling about the school experience. (But try to steer them away from gossip about which teachers give easy A’s and which are tough graders, she says.)
Geisen says one concern she has is that Xaviera will be taking Spanish in middle school, which Geisen does not know. “Is she mature enough to ask for help? Because I’m not going to be able to help her with Spanish,” Geisen says. “I’m going to have to rely on her to be responsible.”
Setting up homework routines, and giving students places to study and to keep their things also helps, says Wells.
She also notes that the middle school years can be challenging because children in sixth, seventh and eighth grades are changing, but some are maturing more quickly than others. Shifting social dynamics and increased peer pressure can be confusing and anxiety provoking.
“Talk to them,” Wells says. “Be open and nonjudgmental. Stay in touch with what’s going on in their lives.”
That includes “friending” them on Facebook, knowing the passwords to their cell phones and keeping computer use out in the open, not in the child’s bedroom, she says. If possible, go on field trips or volunteer at the school.
Students in middle school and high school may also experience the pressure of wanting to excel academically as well as in sports and other extracurricular activities, she says. High-school students, in particular, may forsake sleep and social lives because they are trying to “do it all,” or may berate themselves for perceived failures.
Wells says teens need downtime, and she encourages parents to let them sleep in sometimes, or simply say no to an additional activity.
Brooks notes that parents are not failures if their children come home from school upset about a bad grade or a fight with a friend. These challenges build character, she says. Parents can help by listening, answering questions and “letting the child take the lead,” she says.
However, there are some warning signs that parents should take seriously, says Wells. Declining grades, unexplained tears or moodiness, social isolation, and announcements that a child refuses to go to school are signs that something is not right, she says.
If a parent sees those symptoms, the first step, she says, is to visit the school and see firsthand what the child is experiencing. Set up a conference with the teacher or guidance counselor, she advises. And if that doesn’t work, seek professional help.
Wells also says parents must be careful not to put their own expectations on their children. Just because a parent was a social butterfly, for example, doesn’t mean the child will be. “Understand your child as an individual,” she says, “and meet them where they are.”