How to Prepare Kids for the First Day of School

Common worries and how to address them.

Cherylyn Feierabend
4-minute read
Episode #126

It's back-to-school time, and children everywhere are getting ready to return to school or start for the first time. For many children though, excessive anxiety about pop-quizzes, new teachers, bullies, and the like, makes school an unpleasant experience. This week's guest writer is Diane Peters Mayer. Ms. Mayer has been a psychotherapist in private practice for more than 15 years. She specializes in working with children and adults who have anxiety attacks, school anxiety, and panic attacks. She is the author of OVERCOMING SCHOOL ANXIETY: How to Help Your Child Deal With Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries. You can find more of her advice and insights in to school anxiety at her blog, www.overcomingschoolanxiety.com.

Back-to-School Worry and Anxiety

You can’t miss the back-to-school shopping rush, it’s everywhere from newspaper ads, to TV, to the Internet. Stores are packed with parents and children buying book bags, notebooks, lunchboxes and every item on their must-have lists. Summer is just about over and the start of the new school year is just around the corner (if it hasn’t already started).

The beginning of school and days and weeks leading up to it are perhaps hardest on kindergartners. Their common worries include:

  • “What if my teacher is mean?”
  • “What if the kids don’t like me?”
  • What if I can’t do the work?”
  • “What if I cry and want to go home?”
  • “What if Mommy or Daddy forgets to pick me up?”
Children who are returning to school may also have first day jitters, especially if they are entering new schools or have experienced school anxiety in the past. These kids often voice concerns, including:
  • “What if I can’t find my classroom?”
  • “What if my grades are bad again this year?”
  • “What if my friends don’t like me this year?”
  •  “What if I still don’t understand math?”

This worry could go on for weeks before the first day back, creating tension and anxiety for millions of children and their parents. That first school morning could look like this chaos-filled example:

Your kindergartener has been saying he won’t go to school for weeks, and on this first morning he’s crying, says his stomach hurts, and bellows, “I’m not going!” You tell him as calmly as you can to eat his cereal or you’ll all be late--and he’s going! He eats a spoonful of cereal and promptly vomits on the table which freaks out your third-grader who begins to gag. Your husband had to leave on an unexpected business trip, so no help is available. You still have lunches to pack and your third-grader says she’s misplaced her new pencils. When you finally get everybody to school, your kindergartner clamps onto your leg and won’t let go.

How to Prepare Kids for the First Day of School

What’s a mother to do? With kids who are jittery about school it helps to prepare them and yourself at least a few weeks in advance. Here are eight helpful tips to help you be and feel more prepared: 

  1. Communicate: Talk to your child about how he feels about school without judgment. Listen without jumping in to fix things. But if he balks at school, kindly but firmly tell him why he must go: to obtain an education and because it’s a legal obligation.
  2. Breathe: No matter what your child says, remain calm. She’s worried and needs you to be the “rock” that can lift her emotions on to your shoulders--your steadiness will calm her. Learn easy belly breathing and teach it to your child. This one technique can make a huge difference for anxious children by helping them take control of their nerves instead of feeling that the jitters are in control.
  3. Understand: Don’t downplay your child’s fears. Don’t say “It’s silly to feel that way.” Honor your child’s feelings.
  4. Problem Solve: Work as a team with your child--he is not alone in this. Say, “Together we are going to figure out how to make things better for you.”
  5. Guide: Encourage your child to become independent through independent playtime and also by letting her work out problems she can manage on her own without your stepping in. Independence cuts the risk of separation anxiety.
  6. Boost Confidence: Build your child’s self-worth by celebrating his unique qualities and talents to help him cope with and handle life well.
  7. Prepare: As school approaches, explain to your child what the school morning routine will be like. Look at the school website. Pack book bags and lunches, and lay out clothes the night before. Have your child go to bed early enough to feel rested and wake him in time to eat breakfast
  8. Believe: Believe in your child’s capacity to work through problems and overcome adversity--your belief in him will help him succeed.  

These are great tips! Thank you again to Diane Peters Mayer. You can find a link to her book and her website, www.overcomingschoolanxiety.com, on the transcript page for this show.

For many of us our kids are already back in school. Congratulations to all of you parents of kindergartners! My daughter’s first day was this week and it’s definitely an exciting time. I look forward to watching her learn and grow and sharing more challenges that we’ll be facing in the upcoming days. I’m happy to be learning and sharing my discoveries with my listeners. Thank you for continuing to tune in.

If you’d like to request a topic for the Mighty Mommy you can e-mail me directly at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.