3 Tips for Back-to-School Anxieties

Most children (and parents) have some anxiety about returning to school.

Even if it's mixed with excitement. Change is afoot, so below we offer some tips for navigating it thoughtfully. 

1. See it as an opportunity to learn from your child

Discover new facets of his experience or her specific fears. Try not to judge or immediately problem-solve. For a younger child you can play school and let her be the teacher, a 'mean' classmate, or the fly on the wall. Let things play out and trust that you will learn a lot from the play time. Maybe certain themes emerge (like a mean classmate!), which may lead to a (later) conversation about it and some collective problem-solving. 


For older kids try to embrace a light, gentle stance when talking about school. You may not get as much information through play or direct questions, but if you sense some uncertainty (which most kids will have!) it's a great time to tell stories about your own school transitions or excitement-mixed-with-fear. Normalize what they are feeling by offering up personal experiences or mixed emotions about when you have to go back to work. Trust that even if they don't say Thanks, dad! or articulate exactly what they're feeling, they are picking up what you're putting down. And it may lay the groundwork for future conversations. 

2. Let home be a safe haven.

So much of being in school is being 'on' and being judged by peers or teachers -- often both. Let home be a space where your child can unwind and not feel judged. This means he or she may release big emotions on you/at siblings/at seemingly random times. Or just need to shut off for a while. Your job is to empathize and understand that the work of going to school and being on is absolutely exhausting. Consider adjusting your home expectations a bit as the transition back to school takes hold. 

Maybe you let your child: have a messier room/forget to brush teeth/skip a chore/have a little extra screen time/be a bit more whiny than usual. 


It's not that you are lowering your standards for their behavior more generally, but rather adjusting, accepting and putting it into context. Your 9-year-old has not suddenly completely reverted back to her 5-year-old tantrums and inability to emotionally regulate. Instead, she is exhausted. She's adjusting. She's adapting. She needs your support and understanding, and sometimes a soft place to land comes in the form of not demanding the usual expectations. You can even state it: "Honey, I know you're extra tired from going back to school, so during September I'll load the dishwasher on your nights so you can have a little extra down-time."

3. You model a lot right now

Take a deep breath. The change is a-coming. And of course you're anticipating it!


Maybe you'll need to keep your family on a tighter schedule, manage more big emotions unleashed at home, or re-engage with the genius-level puzzle that is transportation, school and extracurricular logistics. As you navigate this shift in routines and schedules keep in mind that you are always modeling for your children. How do you handle stress? How do you talk about the changes to the schedule? Notice the language you use around changes to routine, the body language you have when calling a babysitter to help with pick-ups, or the tension in your jaw when your child is unleashing big emotions. Consider small ways you might model flexibility and resilience when the ground is shifting a bit beneath all of you. 

Yes, change is good. Change helps us be resilient. And change can be both exciting and hard. Have realistic expectations for your children and yourself. Resilience involves a huge range of skills that can all be practiced during predictable life cycles, like going back to school. 

6 Obstacles to Playing with Your Kid (And How to Mindfully Overcome Them)

Free play for kids is essential. Adults too

Playing with your child is also important, at every age. Generally, it's a clear-cut win to connect and be present. We don't need to over-complicate it. Yet, as busy parents, knowing what gets in our way (and why) helps us make the most of our limited time and feel more confident in our choices of when and how to engage. Below are the most common barriers to quality play with our kids and what to do about them.

1. Not making play a priority.

Your child isn't playing as much in school. And we're all busy (even those who recoil from using that word). What are the small changes you could make to your family schedule or routines? Even the most play-committed parents I know struggle to maintain open, unscheduled windows of time. We need to advocate for our kids by unscheduling our family, too. 

2. Viewing play as tiring

We're all busy, as mentioned. Tired too. Of course you need to check out. You can't be 'on' all of the time. But you can pick moments to be fully present. Of course there are times play is tiring due to its repetitive nature or the fact that we aren't enamored with the Smurfs. But we find that the more authentically playful a parent is, the more opportunities there are to actually re-charge through play. Especially as your child grows more sophisticated physically, intellectually and emotionally.

3. Re-framing play time.

It's common to think of play time as a distinct period of the day, separate from other activities. Try to see beyond a strict division between play time vs. rest of life. Consider transitional or goal-oriented moments as opportunities for play. What about during dinner time? What about when you're trying to get out the door? Find ways to embrace playfulness as a character trait, as it will connect you with your kids and help ease some of the tensions inherent in these agenda-filled moments. 

4. Noticing when you control play. 

It's okay to have an agenda sometimes - structured play and games can connect and facilitate teaching values and skills. But it's also important to enter play without an agenda. The easiest way to let go of your agenda is to truly follow your child. Start by positioning yourself in the same posture and go from there. 

Children will differ on the level of adult involvement they want or need on a particular day, or in a particular space...research on adults’ various roles in play suggests that they need to be sensitive to the child’s needs in the moment, flexible in choosing the way they intervene, and willing to follow the child’s lead.

- Rachel White, Professor of Psychology

5. Knowing when to set boundaries.

A component of play is taking risks and experimenting. From this perspective it's easy to understand why limits get tested. Try to see yourself as an ally from within the play context. You can still be authoritative and clear without completely stopping play. You may have to take a group time-out if safety is a concern. Be clear about what was unsafe and why it doesn't work for you. Then resume play to demonstrate your confidence in your child's ability to self-regulate. If a boundary is continually tested, you can express your desire to move onto something else or take a break until your child is feeling ready to be safe/listen to your limits. 

6. Feeling vulnerable.

One litmus test for feeling vulnerable is controlling play or wanting to stop it. It's okay to feel vulnerable. And you can choose how you want to act from within that experience. In some cases feeling vulnerable will be a healthy sign that the play has gotten unsafe. In other cases vulnerability may signal a discomfort with a strong emotion, or an uncertainty about when or how to set a boundary (e.g. your child is wrestling you too aggressively). Start noticing when you get uncomfortable or when you want to control, and decide consciously what to do. In some cases you may be able to stretch your own comfort zone in a healthy way. For example, maybe an overly-aggressive wrestle session provides you with a new opportunity to talk about physical strength, checking in with another's experience, and discussing what it feels like to feel overpowered. 

We hope you'll take yourself seriously as an important play-er in your child's life. It's not only important to your relationship and her growth, it can also be actually, truly fun for you. 

When we adults unite play, love, and work in our lives, we set an example that our children can follow. That just might be the best way to bring play back into the lives of our children—and build a more playful culture. Children do as we do, not as we say. That gives us incentive to bring play back into our adult lives.

- David Elkind, Psychologist



4 Playful Ideas for Spontaneous Kindness

4 Playful Ideas for Spontaneous Kindness

Four interactive, play-inspiring projects to grow kindness. A guest post from Doing Good Together's Sarah Aadland. Improv Parenting is a huge fan of DGT's mission to make volunteering and service easy and accessible for families.