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Back to School Season: Surviving The First Week Of School

For some teens, the start of a new school year is exciting. For others, especially those transitioning from elementary to middle school or from middle to high school, they feel anxious. But no matter where your teen is on the back-to-school spectrum, here are some tips to make that first week of school — and the rest — go smoothly, plus a few pieces of advice that could be helpful throughout the school year.

A Daily Planner for the First Week Back at School:

Sunday: Beating the night-before blues

If your teen suffers from the Sunday Night Blues—anxiousness, stomachaches and worries about the week ahead—it can bring an abrupt end to your relaxing weekend. There are, however, a few things parents can do to help ease the angst.

“Setting up a Sunday night ritual works like a charm,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Connecticut, who focuses on adolescents and families. “Instead of dreading Sunday night, it gives kids something to look forward to.”

What you do doesn’t matter, as long as it is special and reserved only for Sunday night: dinner out at your favorite pizza joint, a frozen yogurt run, family game night or watching a movie together.

You should also encourage your teen not to leave weekend homework until the last moment and to check his or her planner so as to be confident that everything is complete. And make sure they get a solid night’s sleep; adolescents should be getting at least nine hours a night.

Monday: Taming new school jitters

The first day and weeks can be especially challenging for middle school students setting foot on campus for the first time: “How will I find my different classrooms without being late?” “How do I open the lock on my locker? Where is the bathroom?”

Many schools have orientations to help ease student’s back to school anxiety.  But Susan Schechtman, middle school principal at Oakwood School in Los Angeles, says parents of particularly nervous teens should arrange a tour of the school over the summer “when everything is calm and quiet.”

“Fear of the unknown is huge,” Schechtman says. “Kids are nervous about the logistics, and walking the halls and seeing where everything is can make a big difference in how they feel on day one.”

A few other tips: Buy a lock for their locker early so they can practice using it until it’s a snap. Get together for dinner or hike with another family or two that has kids attending the same school. And, if you can afford it, let your teen have that special pair of jeans or sneakers or backpack. “At this age, kids are extremely self-conscious,” Greenberg says. “It is important that they feel they can fit in.”

Tuesday: Teasing out the 411

Most parents want to know how the school day went—especially at the beginning of the year. But whether it’s the first week or the next 35, asking your teen “How was school today?” the minute he or she walks through the door is for rookies.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get a shrug and maybe a mumbled “fine.” If not, you may unexpectedly find yourself on the receiving end of a rant as your teen lets go of some of the day’s pent-up anxiety. Either way, the one thing you definitely won’t get is information.

“What they need when they first come home is some cookies, a hug, and time to decompress,” says Michele Borba, a child psychologist and the author of more than 20 books on raising children. “Not the third degree: ‘Who did you sit with at lunch?’ ‘Did you make any friends?’ ‘How was your teacher?’ That just increases their anxiety.”

Borba says parents should save their inquiry for the dinner hour, when the family is together and everyone is sharing information about their day; that way, your teen is not the focus. And she suggests that parents may be more successful if they ask open-ended questions like, “What was the highlight of your day?”

Wednesday: Mapping a plan of attack

By mid-week, your child will be fully back in school mode: juggling homework, sports, and after-school activities. This can be hard for any teenager, but is especially so for middle school kids who still need to learn time management and have yet to develop strong study habits and organizational skills.

“They are going from elementary school which is 100 percent hands-on to middle school where they are expected to do a lot for themselves,” Schechtman says. “Parents need to be involved to help them create good habits.”

Schechtman advises parents to help their teens figure out what will work best for them. If they’re visual learners, for example, that might mean keeping a big calendar or white board above their desk where they can see short-term and long-term assignments, due dates, sports practices and other activities at a glance. If they are auditory learners, it might be more useful to talk through assignments with them each day and help them map out a plan of attack.

Though independence is the goal, many young high school students still need help, too. That doesn’t mean doing it for them, as much as providing a bit of structure and guidance. This could be as simple as buying color-coded notebooks for their classes, or limiting access to technology while they do homework. It also means respecting how they work best. Some teens need a quiet place with few distractions; others thrive in the middle of a busy kitchen with their headphones on.

Thursday: Making the morning a little less mad

You can’t get your teen out of bed in the morning. She doesn’t have anything to wear. He skips breakfast because the carpool is waiting. She forgets her homework on the dining room table. He leaves his lunch on the kitchen counter. You haven’t so much as had your first sip of coffee and you’re already cranky. If this sounds familiar, Borba has a few easy tips to lower the early-morning temperature.

First and foremost, she recommends that parents buy their kids an alarm clock. “You need to stop being Big Ben,” she says. “Make it their job to get up in time for school.”

Borba also recommends that teens lay out their clothing for school the night before; pack their backpack and put it by the front door so they trip over it on the way out; and, since it cannot be repeated enough times, she recommends that all adolescents get at least nine hours of sleep.

Friday: Doing away with some of the drama

By the end of the week, peer pressures—and plenty of drama—will surface. Did your teen get invited to the party? Was it hard for him to make friends or feel comfortable at school? Did she feel someone was mean to her? It can be hard as a parent to know how to support your teen’s social life without getting too involved.

One key is to remind your child that there is a difference between friendship and popularity, and that friendships take time to develop. Encourage them to consider—but don’t push—joining a school club or sports team where making friends with similar interests can be easier. And remind them that everyone is in the same boat, and they might want to reach out to someone else who looks like they need a friend.

“But don’t try and solve the problem for them,” Borba cautions. “Help them instead to figure out ways they can solve the problem on their own.”

Saturday: Ensuring the weekend is fun—and safe

No matter how old your teenagers are, parents of middle and high school kids should be involved in their children’s weekend plans. How little or how much is highly personal and can depend on everything from where you live, the age of your teen, to their temperament and issues of trust.

A few basic guidelines include reviewing the rules and expectations for your family. Let them know that you don’t care what other parents do—that you, for example, are always going to call to make sure there is supervision at the party. It helps to set and stick to curfews, while at the same time knowing that some events—a concert they’ve been saving to go to, say—call for making an exception. And let them know that you expect them to check in, early and often.

“Even if it upsets them, they need to know that you’re involved and that you’re watching over them and are going to keep them safe,” Greenberg says. She adds that parents should give kids a code word so they can call you if they’re in a sticky situation. “That way they don’t have to be embarrassed and parents can play the bad guy if need be.”

And, if at all possible, keep them close. “Keep your door open and your house kid-friendly,” says Borba. “The more they hang out at your house, the more you will learn about your kid and their friends. Make your house the place to be.”

Randye Hoder

Randye Hoder writes about the intersection of family, politics and culture. Her articles have appeared in  the The New York Times,  Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, Time and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter @ranhoder.