Last updateMon, 23 Oct 2017 3pm

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Back-to-school blues: Schedules and schoolbooks spark the annual anxiety

It's coming, and the wishes of every child in the district can't stop it. The new school year steadily approaches, inspiring anything from impatient excitement to resignation, mild nervousness or a healthy dose of heart-pounding terror. And that's just in the parents.

But don't worry, there's good news - there are practical steps parents and children can take to get the school year off to a good start. Even for the most reluctant student, a little effort in the last weeks of summer can ease the transition.

For most parents, the re-establishment of a school-year bedtime springs to mind immediately. A few weeks of acclimation to early mornings will make it easier for students to drag themselves out of bed for school.

Mealtimes are important, too - in the summer, children's looser schedules may mean meals are inconsistent or skipped entirely, so in the last weeks or days before classes begin, create a little consistency with healthful meals at the same time each day. Developing these routines can trigger the "reset" button, reminding a child's body that a change is approaching and making it less of a shock to the system when the school routine returns.

"Instead of ... an abrupt end of the summer and start of the school year, (I recommend) starting to rein things back in," said Jeff Baier, starting his first school year as associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Los Altos School District.

Starting classes is taxing enough without sneezing and wheezing, so it's a good protective measure to schedule medical and dental checkups. Any health problems can then be dealt with before the constraints of the school-year schedule. Keeping up-to-date on immunizations will ward off the autumn illnesses. Soon students will be logging time focusing on the page or the computer screen, so consider getting your children's eyes checked as well.

Amy Gaffney's children keep busy during the summer - their lineup of camps and activities keep them almost as heavily scheduled as they are during their school year at Covington Elementary. Still, she anticipates frustration as they transition from relative freedom, often outdoors, to the realities of the classroom.

"It's a big adjustment to go from being very active to having to sit and pay attention," she said.

As summer wanes, a different kind of activity begins to take precedence.

"We try to get them more into … keeping their brains active," Gaffney said.

Kim Albright, who has three daughters at Santa Rita Elementary School, is no stranger to this problem. The moment school lets out for the summer, everything children have struggled to learn can seem to drain right out of their minds.

"There's a whole phenomenon of summer forgetfulness. It helps to spend half an hour every so often on your math facts," Albright said.

The summer brain drain can be a formidable obstacle. Some teachers send home packets of review materials. Just a few minutes a day reviewing math facts or other simple exercises can make a significant difference in keeping your child intellectually active. Even late in the summer, a little time every day to read will get students into the learning state of mind, engaging them in familiar ways of thinking that might jump-start memories of forgotten schoolwork.

Before the year begins, it's important to clear a designated homework space. This may be a quiet desk, or it may not. Individual students have different preferences about background noise and lighting levels - some may prefer to spread out on the floor instead of sitting at a desk. Getting the right environment will help your child work efficiently.

The final days of summer will be a little less hectic if families finish school supplies shopping early. Having supplies assembled and bags packed the night before the first day of school can bring a little extra peace of mind to nervous children and parents. Likewise, assembling healthful lunches and laying out clothes the night before will save stress on the big day.

While there's no need to go overboard, equipping children with an armory of unnecessary school supplies and a closetful of new clothes, a few new things can give a psychological boost.

Clothes in particular can have a strong influence on a student's outlook - planning a favorite outfit for the first day of school may make the occasion feel special.

Most schools have some form of dress code, so it is worth checking those guidelines before shopping. As much as it may pain you to let your children pick out their own styles, it can pay off in its effect on their outlook. Having a sense of control and independence about self-expression may make the approaching school year seem less dreary.

From the remote distance of adulthood, it's easy to forget how genuine and distressing childhood worries can be. Monique Kane, executive director of Mountain View's Community Health Awareness Council and a practicing marriage and family therapist, urges understanding and empathy for stressed-out students of any age.

"I think that (parents) should be tolerant if at first it seems like a hard transition," she said.

Some children naturally enjoy the school routine and transition seamlessly, but for others the experience is not so idyllic.

"For some kids it's like a real job and they come home tired themselves," Kane said.

Reassurance and open communication are vital if your child seems to be floundering under the stress of academic and social demands. For very young children or those entering a new, unfamiliar school, taking time to visit the school ahead of time can take a burden off their minds. Most schools are accustomed to children stopping by to see their new classrooms, locate bathrooms and lunchrooms and sometimes meet new teachers.

A new teacher can be a source of either excitement or great anxiety. Older children may await the announcement of their teachers for the year with eager anticipation, while younger ones may be shy and uncertain.

It can be helpful to walk a nervous child into the school on the first day, but it's important not to linger too long - eventually, your child will need to adjust to getting through the school day independently. Lingering only delays that adjustment and prolongs the anxiety-laden limbo between the worlds of home and school. If you want to give a little reassurance during the school day, consider packing a handwritten note of encouragement into your child's backpack or lunchbox.

Acute academic pressure may begin earlier than you think, with middle-schoolers already fretting over college.

Overall, the best advice is to be responsive to the signals you pick up about your child's emotional state. Don't overdo it - some children have very little apprehension about school, and others will only be worked up into a worse state of anxiety if a parent, who seems equally nervous, feeds their fears.

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