Prepping for Back to School When Your Child Has Emotional or Behavioral Needs

A young boy walks down a sidewalk, away from the camera, wearing a blue backpack.
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Babble is partnering with PACER Center to help readers better understand and navigate the needs of young children. This month, we’re talking about how to ready your child for a positive school year when they’re dealing with emotional or behavioral needs.

Summer break can be a welcome relief for many parents, especially if their child struggles with emotional and behavioral needs in the classroom. As a result, it’s not always easy for a child who’s experienced stress and difficulty at school to look forward to the beginning of the school year. The very thought of going back can trigger anxiety and unwanted behaviors, including acting out, throwing tantrums, or showing disrespect and impulsivity.

Preparing your child for the transition from summer to school can make all the difference in creating a positive experience. Here are some things that can help:

1. Focus on logistics.

Make sure your child knows the physical location of key parts of his or her day: Where they will catch the bus, and where to find their classroom, the lunch room, and the bathrooms.

2. Meet the teacher.

If possible, arrange for your child to sit down with their teacher before school starts. Help your child build a relationship by preparing to talk about her summer and ask the teacher about theirs.

3. Build excitement.

Help your child feel excited about bringing a new backpack, a favorite lunchbox, or wearing new sneakers the first day of school.

4. Accentuate the positive.

When a child is nervous about something as major as starting the school year, it’s normal for them to worry about difficult things that have happened. Here’s your chance to change that conversation by reminding him about something positive, like a successful project they accomplished last year or a time they were rewarded for a new skill they used. You can also reassure your child by emphasizing that they are a year older now.

5. Don’t go it alone.

Invite a friend or classmate over before school starts to help renew the friendship. Encourage positive support from other family members, such as grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles.

6. Plan for the positive.

Encourage your child to identify how she would like the school year to look, focusing on positive things she can do each week, like complimenting a classmate, offering to help the teacher, or being a friend to someone who needs one. At the end of the week, offer a compliment when your child tells you what she did.

7. Create a positive behavior chart.

Involve your child in identifying successes and reward them with a preferred activity (e.g. time alone with Mom or Dad, or a special trip to get a treat).

Finally, remember that routines are important for any child, but especially for your child with emotional or behavioral needs. Family dinner times, consistent bed times and wake up times, and morning routines provide important structure — a great way to transition to the school year from the more relaxed summer schedule.

Want to learn more about children’s mental health and emotional or behavioral disorders? Visit PACER.org now.

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