Managing the Transition Back to School


By Kate Roberts, Ph.D.

Regardless of your child’s age, the first day of school can be daunting for children and parents. It’s not just the transition from summer to school year that can be overwhelming. It can be especially difficult during a transition year when a child is entering a new environment such as kindergarten, first grade, middle school, or high school.

Here are some tips for a good start to a transitional school year:

  • Start early. Shop for new supplies and clothes in advance. Get acclimated to new routines at least a week before school starts by practicing the new schedule, including bedtime and morning routines.
  • Stay positive and solution-focused. Reassure your child that he or she is truly ready for the new school environment (that’s why they’ve been promoted!).  Focus on the excitement of going back to school. Stay away from comments like “Now it’s the big time!” or “Things really count this year” because they may cause undue pressure.
  • Make sure you get the lay of the land. If your child will be going to a new school, tour the building with him or her in advance. This will help ease the anxiety of both you and your child.
  • Prepare them for “what if”.  They might ask, “How am I going to get from one class to the other?” if they’re entering a big middle or high school building. Provide specific examples from your own experiences and those of others you know.
  • Calm your own fears. Sometimes these transition years present bigger challenges for parents than they do for kids. Make sure that as a parent your own fears and anxiety aren’t overshadowing whatever experience your child might be going through. This is your child’s milestone. Take a backseat, but be supportive in helping your child have the best school year ever.

Here are some specific tips and thoughts for each transition year:

Preschool to kindergarten:

  • Social-emotional development. Despite today’s emphasis on academics, many experts believe that social-emotional development is the essential developmental task of kindergarten-age kids Important achievements include sharing;  taking responsibility for cleaning up after themselves; learning to be members of a larger group;   understanding  and communicating their needs;  and tolerating differences in others.
  • Academics. Parents are often concerned about the academic challenges of kindergarten. The curriculum tends to focus on the fundamentals of reading and math. Kids learn the ABC’s, how to write their names, and how to count – all primary steps to higher learning. Instead of being worried about how fast your child is mastering the academic skills, encourage him to be curious and explore the learning process with him.

Kindergarten to first grade:

  • A more demanding curriculum and a longer day. When your child’s kindergarten is located in an elementary school it’s less of a physical leap to first grade, yet there are changes in academic expectations such as learning to read more independently. Another milestone for some students is the length of the school day – from half-day kindergarten to full-day first grade.

Elementary to middle school:

  • Focus on positives.  This period of growing up involves gaining more independence and freedom. Remind your child that teachers won’t be hovering, following him or her around the school, or making lunch room seating decisions.
  • Highlight the changes in responsibilities. Be specific so he knows what to expect: managing lockers; organizing belongings independently; getting to classes in four to five minutes; having more homework; staying after to ask for help when needed. Discuss strategies and rehearse scenarios to reduce anxiety.
  • Prepare to have a hands-on role. When schools step back, parents need to move forward. Many experts – including myself – believe that the older a child gets, the more he or she needs. The school backs off on monitoring homework, but parents should not. Oversee your child’s whole process without micromanaging. This may take skill, but practice makes perfect.

Middle school to high school:

  • Being the youngest kids in a bigger school. Eighth graders were the older kids in middle school, but freshmen are back to being the youngest again in schools that are often bigger than middle schools.
  • High school as college prep time. Students become very aware that in high school performance finally counts: the MCAS actually means something in the tenth grade. Be supportive without adding unnecessary academic pressure.
  • Experimentation and choice.  High school is a time for students to experiment and develop a sense of who they are, but the decisions they make and the actions they take have consequences. Discuss things like cheating,   lying, and skipping school. When possible, support them by letting them know that you have faith in their decision-making abilities.

Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach on the North Shore.  To learn more about Kate, please visit,, or