Back to school: Tips to help younger students have a successful first week

Structure and socialization skills are key, says UCLA Health’s Dr. Shilpa Baweja.
As kids return to the classroom this fall, things may look and feel a bit more normal than last year, when schools were transitioning from remote to in-person learning. Still, first-day jitters are common with children of all ages, whether they’re transitioning to a new school or just from one grade to the next.

How can parents make that first week more comfortable for their elementary school kids?

Providing structure and helping kids with socialization skills are keys to a successful transition, says Shilpa Baweja, PhD, LCSW, co-director of the Parenting & Children’s Friendship Program at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Dr. Baweja offers these tips parents can implement now to make the first few days of school go smoother:

Create a schedule

Parents should create a realistic schedule for their children that allows enough time for them to complete their tasks.

“Really sitting down and writing it out can be enlightening,” Dr. Baweja says. “What we often find is that parents are spending too much time trying to get kids to eat, and often the kids are not getting enough sleep.”

She notes that parents tend to either underestimate – or overestimate – what their kids can do. “We do a lot of educating on what you can expect kids to do at certain ages, whether it’s with parent assistance or independently,” she says, “which is always surprising to families.”

What’s most important is that the schedule is realistic and can be implemented, Dr. Baweja says. “Parents must be pragmatic about what their kids can get done during the day and allot enough time to do it.”

Set a consistent bedtime

Dr. Baweja notes that once kids stop daily naps, they still need to sleep a set number of hours.

Setting a consistent bedtime and creating time to help your child wind down beforehand will ensure your child is getting the sleep he or she requires.

“When kids’ bodies are rested and they know what to expect, having that schedule and structure of a set bedtime helps kids cope with all the stress around them,” she says.

Help children make friends

One of the remnants of the pandemic era is that some children may have difficulty socializing with their peers, Dr. Baweja says, and it can be stressful to leave their home environment. Such children often have difficulty expressing their thoughts and feelings, which can result in frustration and negative behaviors, she says.

To help children connect with a friend, she suggests parents seek the assistance of their child’s teacher on or before the first day of school.

“That first week of school sets the tone, and if kids don’t start to connect it will snowball,” Dr. Baweja says. “Parents can proactively ask teachers to help connect their child with someone – for example, assigning them a buddy when they go to lunch – and to keep their eyes and ears open to kids who would be a good fit for them.”

Parents can model social skills by introducing themselves to other parents, she says. “It’s such a basic suggestion, but we don’t do that enough when we’re rushing from point A to point B. Making that face-to-face connection will help our kids socially.”

Attending back-to-school or meet-and-greet events prior to the first day also can help reduce a child’s anxiety, Dr. Baweja says.

Spend 5 minutes with your child daily

Carving out just five minutes of one-on-one time with your child each day can benefit both of you, Dr. Baweja says. Whether it’s during bath time or reading a book at bedtime, checking in with your child serves a lot of purposes, including talking about how their day went and prepping them for the next school day.

She suggests setting a timer and turning off electronics, including your phone, so there are no distractions.

“It’s something that’s sweet and simple to implement,” Dr. Baweja says. “It really fosters goodwill between parents and children.”

Learn more about the Parenting & Children’s Friendship Program at UCLA Health.

Jennifer Karmarkar is the author of this article.