Back to school: Tips for every age, stage and milestone

Heading back to school can be stressful. Here's some tips for all ages. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

TORONTO – They’re waking up to alarm clocks, getting onto the school bus and opening new textbooks – across Canada (except in B.C.), kids are going back to school.

We all remember the night before the first day of class: you might have been too anxious to sleep, wondering what the next day holds.

Kids could be reuniting with friends, starting high school or surrounded by strangers if they’ve just moved into a new neighbourhood. There’s pressure to make friends, to excel in new classes and make the most of the year.

Global News asked four parenting experts, authors and researchers for their back-to-school tips for a variety of ages, situations and milestones.

Read more back-to-school coverage here.

For getting over first day/week jitters: Your child needs to know that first day jitters are normal, natural feelings – even teachers are nervous, according to parenting author Alyson Schafer.

Teach your child some ways to cope with those butterflies in their tummy:

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  • Assure them that it’s normal and will pass
  • Teach them to breathe deeply and slowly to calm their nerves
  • Advise them to stay away from caffeine or energy drinks
  • Talk to them about what makes them nervous and have a strategy. If they’re worried about who will sit with them at lunch, help them map out a plan in advance. If they need to, rehearse it so they’ll know what they will do or say.

For heading into a new school: Teens heading into middle school for the first time could feel like they’re starting all over again. From kindergarten to high school, getting lost is a universal nightmare – wandering the halls, looking for homeroom, the washroom or gym class. But this is easily resolved, according to parenting author Ann Douglas.

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“Look for a copy of your school’s floor plan on the school website. And don’t be afraid to ask for directions when you get to school,” she advised. Keep in mind, there will be teachers, guidance counsellors and other staff on hand during the busy first week.

Look up all of the classes on your schedule, then find each classroom, Schafer recommends. Ask your classmates next to you, “Do you have math next period?”

“Usually there is a group of students who have similar schedules so follow the pack that’s going to math,” Schafer said.

For being mentally prepared for a new school year: It starts with a good night’s rest, says Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and author.

“In over 10 years of practice, the single most effective thing I ever do as a doctor is emphasize the healing and life-sustaining power of sleep,” she explained. REM sleep is critical – it helps with strengthening brain circuits and it’s most frequent during key periods of brain development, such as childhood and adolescence.

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READ MORE: Canadian doctor shares her tips for falling asleep and staying asleep

If your child is nervous about certain subjects or falling behind, work through their concerns. “Do some browsing on the Internet with children to see what their new curriculum will be so they have a preliminary sense of what to expect,” says Dr. Elizabeth Sloat, an education professor at the University of New Brunswick.

If they’re anxious about reading out loud or understanding complex novels, start an informal book club at home so they can practice reading and discussing content. If they’re worried about math, get them involved with learning about budgets, measuring ingredients while cooking or download some computer games that can help strengthen math skills.

“Find another child in the neighbourhood who’s just completed the grade or school your child is entering and arrange for the two of them to talk,” Sloat suggests.

For making new friends in middle school: It’s during adolescence and teenage years that fitting in becomes the most important priority.

“From puberty onward, they become completely consumed with social behaviors, such as who’s doing what and with whom,” Kang explained.

“Consider how thrilled teenagers feel when they’re invited to a party and how gloomy they feel when they’re left out,” she said. Studies have even suggested that the feeling of being excluded as a teen is similar to how they’d react to threats of physical harm or to starvation. In high school, fitting in is a survival instinct.

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“Remind them of all their attributes that make them a good friend and ask them how they will show those qualities to others in an actionable way,” Schafer suggests.

READ MORE: 12 things parents, kids should do before summer ends

If your child has social skills issues, speak to a teacher about getting support.  There are great social skills programs that can help, she said.

For going into Grade 12: The last year of high school can be stressful. “There are a lot of important decisions to make about your future. Everything can feel incredibly high stakes,” Douglas says.

This is where stress-management strategies – which will stay with your teens into adulthood – can help. It could be taking a walk around the block, spending time with friends or unwinding by watching your favourite TV show, she suggests.

Douglas recommends making a list of these coping strategies ahead of time.

“Your brain will find it easier to brainstorm creative solutions when you’re calm and relaxed,” she said.

For making the most of your school year: Good grades are a big piece of the puzzle, but your grade school career extends beyond hitting the books. Take on extra-curricular activities, such as sports teams or music. It’ll help you learn what you’re good at and what you like. It’ll also provide you with opportunities to make new friends and meet new people with similar hobbies, Douglas says.

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