The temperature feels like summer is still in full swing, yet this week, thousands of schoolchildren headed back to the classroom.
“Everyone knows that the first weeks of school can be stressful for students,” said Suzanne Silverstein, MA, founding director of Cedars-Sinai Share & Care, which provides counseling services to students who are experiencing emotional and academic challenges due to traumatic situations and stressors. “But it’s also a big source of stress for parents and families, so the start of the school year is a good time to strategize for success.”
Parents’ first step is to establish a routine, Silverstein said. For young children, that might mean making lunches and laying out the next day’s outfit before bedtime. For older children, parents could focus on establishing a consistent time for homework, dinner, bath and bedtime.
“Some children need to let off steam when they get home or have some quiet downtime; others need to do homework right away,” Silverstein said. “It’s important to know what will work best for your child and your family. Sticking to a schedule alleviates stress in the morning and sends children to school with a calm mindset.”
“It is typical for parents to relax those rules during the summer, but once school starts, parents and children need to have a conversation about limits on social media and screen time. Set agreed-upon rules,” Escovedo recently said in a virtual community conversation about the back-to-school season. “It could be as simple as no phones during dinner and homework.”
The start of the school year is a good time to renew a needed prescription and fill out school medication forms, Escovedo said, especially for children who take a summer break from ADHD medications. And she suggests parents and children go through their social media accounts together and stop following any that could be harmful, such as social media accounts that encourage eating disorders, cutting or sexual abuse.
One of Escovedo’s most important strategies is for parents to be able to differentiate between regular teenage angst and a more serious situation like depression.
“If there is significant change in behavior or demeanor that persists for weeks, parents need to speak with a school counselor and pediatrician and possibly receive a referral for a therapist,” Escovedo said.
If a child is experiencing a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, Escovedo said parents should call a new hotline, 988, that immediately links callers with a mental health team.
“It’s a great idea to check in with your pediatrician now to ensure that your child is best protected as they enter the school year,” said Soni. “Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a dramatic decrease in routine vaccinations for children as we were quarantining and social distancing early in the pandemic. This resulted in millions of missed doses of vaccines for U.S. kids. If there have been any gaps in your child’s vaccines being up to date, now is the time to take action to ensure the school year goes as smoothly as possible and your child is protected against vaccine-preventable illnesses.”
Some vaccines require a second dose between 4 and 6 years old, including the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine as well as the vaccine against chickenpox. Preteens around 11 and 12 years old are due for meningococcal vaccines and the human papillomavirus vaccination, which protects against certain cancers. Older teens might need to get a second dose of their meningococcal vaccines.
In addition to the back-to-school vaccines, Soni reminds parents to get flu shots for their children before October, ahead of the winter flu surge.
In terms of COVID-19, any child who was vaccinated after April should be up to date. A new booster is expected, possibly as soon as late September.
“It may seem to parents that as soon as young children start school, they start catching colds and viruses, but there is no magic remedy to avoid that,” Soni said. “However, there are some commonsense actions, like hand-washing, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep, that can help.”
Silverstein believes the best strategy for a successful academic year is for parents to be on top of their children’s mental and physical health. The more parental involvement, the better, Silverstein said.
“While all students may be anxious at the start of the school year,” said Silverstein, “it’s important to watch that the anxiety doesn’t spiral. For parents, communication with their children and with the teachers can help keep problems in check.”