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Preparing for Back-to-School Success

How to set kids up to thrive, despite the uncertainties

Writer: Gia Miller

Clinical Experts: Laura Phillips, PsyD, ABPdN , Jodi Musoff, MA, MEd , Kenya Hameed, PsyD , Julia Nunan-Saah, PhD

en Español

There’s still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding school openings this fall. Remote learning, in-person classes, some of both? But even if you don’t know quite what school will look like this year, there are still things you can do to set your child up to succeed.

Set Boundaries

First, parents should be clear on what their role is. “Spring was a really quick pivot for parents, teachers and students,” says Laura Phillips, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “But teachers are now planning in a way they couldn’t before, and parents should be assured that they don’t have to be their child’s teacher this fall.”

Parents have enough on their plates and setting boundaries around remote learning will decrease stress and help ensure you have more bandwidth to support your child. “As a parent, your role is to assist your kids during remote learning by providing the right amount of support and structure, and to help them problem-solve,” says Dr. Philips. “It’s not your job to teach your kids.”

Communicate with teachers

One way you can begin to establish a partnership is by reaching out to your child’s teachers via email prior to the start of the school year to introduce yourself (and your child) and initiate a collaborative relationship.

“Some teachers will need to balance both live and remote teaching at the same time, and some will need to balance different groupings of kids, so approach them with an understanding that they will have a lot to manage,” Jodi Musoff, MA, MEd, an educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute, recommends. In that introductory email, include information about how your child handled distance learning this past spring and their academic strengths and weaknesses. You can also take the opportunity to ask questions.

If there’s anything going on at home that might affect your child’s learning this fall — something that’s certainly true of many kids these days! — now is a great chance to fill teachers in. “I really believe in more communication rather than less,” says Faith Hunter, lower school principal at Little Red School House in New York. If you’re stretched thin and juggling other responsibilities, if your child is having a hard time sharing a work space with siblings, if they’re struggling socially — whatever it is, knowing the context will make it easier for teachers to be sensitive to your child’s needs.

“Be patient and don’t expect to receive a response immediately,” advises Kenya Hameed, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist. “Teachers may not start looking at these emails until they’re officially on the clock.” But by reaching out to them now, you’re getting a jump on the personal connection that will help your child thrive once fall arrives.

Get your child organized

Keeping supplies and information organized is a common challenge for kids of any age, especially with the switch to remote learning. This is particularly important for children who have ADHD, since their executive functioning challenges may make it difficult to manage multiple teachers, programs and websites.

“Help create some scaffolding for your children before school begins by making a list of the different platforms they’ll need to check to learn about upcoming meetings and assignments,” says Dr. Phillips. “When you don’t see your teachers in person, it’s easy to be unaware of what you have to do, so knowing where their assignments are posted will set them up for success.”

These details might seem secondary to the things your child is learning in school, but they’re actually a crucial foundation. “At a minimum, there are basic things that your child needs in order to show up and learn,” says Dr. Hameed. She recommends helping kids get a strong start by setting up an environment that helps facilitate schoolwork and making sure they’re comfortable using important tools (like tablets) before classes begin. Some examples of this could be:

  • Working together to set up a quiet workspace and experimenting with what works best for your child — this could mean a separate room, designating a specific portion of a shared space, or a set of noise-cancelling headphones that makes it easier to focus. If your children are sharing a space, you can encourage them to personalize their area by decorating a presentation board or cardboard box to serve as a privacy screen.
  • Designating spots to store writing utensils, paper, books, handouts and any other materials they need.
  • Making sure you have a reliable internet connection.
  • Checking to confirm that your child’s tablet or laptop is working and that they know how to use it.
  • Taking some time to explore any websites or programs the school is using together so that your child feels comfortable navigating the tech on their own.
  • Making a physical list of important passwords kids might need to remember and putting it in a safe, accessible place.

Settle into routines

If your child is distance or hybrid learning, it’s helpful if you can create a routine that’s similar to what they would experience if they were attending school in person. “One of the most important things to ask teachers is for the flow of a typical day and the materials your child should have,” says Hunter. “It’ll allow you to really think about how you can encourage your child to gain the same independence that they would have in the classroom.”

For example, elementary school children may put their picture on an attendance chart when they arrive at school and then make sure their supplies are organized for the day. Next, there might be a morning meeting or a look ahead at the day’s schedule. You won’t be able to replicate these routines exactly, but talking to teachers can help you understand what kids would ordinarily expect, and brainstorm manageable ways to give them a similar sense of structure at home. This doesn’t have to be elaborate — it might just be a few reliable steps that kids can count on to make transitions easier.

Teachers typically spend the first six weeks of the school year building these essential routines so children can move comfortably through the day. Partnering with your child’s teachers to establish a similar framework at home means that, eventually, your child will be able to go through their day with less assistance from you. You’ll get some of your time back and they’ll gain more confidence — everyone benefits.

Ease anxiety about an unusual school year

Distance and hybrid learning models will make it much more difficult for your child to get to know their teachers and classmates this year. Think creatively about how you can help your child develop a connection with them, and don’t hesitate to ask the teacher what you both can do to build that bond.

For instance, children with social anxiety often visit their schools to meet their teachers and see their classrooms before the school year begins. Dr. Phillips suggests that parents consider asking if there are any similar opportunities for their children to see a real, live human prior to the first day of school, whether it’s over video chat or at a socially distant face-to-face meeting. Or, you could ask your child what they’d like their teacher to know about them and email it to the teacher, perhaps including some of their own questions for the teacher as well. Even just making introductory notes for your child to keep on hand can reduce anxiety around remote learning — that way, when it’s time for that icebreaker activity on the first day of class, they won’t have to think of what to say on the spot.

For children transitioning from elementary to middle school, moving to a larger campus and from one teacher to many (all with potentially different teaching styles and online systems) can be overwhelming under normal circumstances, so be sure to talk with your child ahead of time about what that might feel like.

The same goes for other big transitions, like moving up to high school or changing schools. “All transitions take a while to get used to, but they eventually even out,” says Julia Nunan-Saah, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at Child Mind Institute. “Set expectations, and let kids know it may take a month to get used to this new system. Remind them of their coping strategies for when there are bumps in the road and assure them that you’ll be there to help them get through it.”

Schedule family time

Separating school life and its stressors from family life will continue to be a challenge for those who are distance learning, but it’s important to create a distinction when you can.

If it’s manageable for your family, try to create a transitional period between schoolwork and home life to create a more positive atmosphere. Scheduling fun activities for evenings and weekends, like a game night or a hike, can also provide the relaxation and sense of connection that will help your child focus and learn during the school day.

Even just planning quick, regular check-ins with your child — over breakfast, for example — can make a big difference. That bit of planning gives your child confidence that you’re facing these new challenges together, and it provides a built-in time for them to come to you with any concerns as the school year goes on.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.