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Commentary: Summer's end doesn't have to mean school stress begins

By Dr. Jerry Weichman, Ph.D.

Categories: Neurosciences
When you're a kid, summer means long sunny days, fun outings and flexible schedules. No one wants to give up those delights.

It's no wonder that as August fades into September, many kids and families start to feel stressed about the looming academic year.

Some kids experience a sense of impending doom about being responsible for homework and projects. Parents may feel overwhelmed by the rush to buy school supplies and dread the pressure their children exert for expensive designer clothing and electronics.

Many parents report a tremendous sense of relief (and even a bit of guilt that they feel that relief) when the first day of school arrives. There's no question that the lead-up to that big day can be challenging for the entire family.

Here are some tips to help make a smoother, less stressful transition from the freedom of summer to the more regulated schedule of the school year:

Enact the "work before play" rule. Before homework becomes a weekly assignment, establish this rule with students of all ages — finish your homework/chores before you can enjoy the fun, relaxing stuff. Expect some major pushback from your kids and teenagers, especially if this is a new concept, but stay firm. Procrastination is a key factor in poor academic performance and high parental stress.

Break summer reading "leftovers" into bite-size pieces. Your kids may be dodging their assigned summer reading because they feel overwhelmed. Help them through it by dividing the assignment into manageable chunks, such as 30 minutes of reading a day or three chapters a day. Apply the "work before play" rule here as well to make sure they stay on task.

Rise and shine. If your kids are used to sleeping in, the early wakeup for school can be a brutal jolt. You can ease the transition by having them get up "early" for at least three or four days before school begins. This practice helps reset their internal clocks and makes for a smoother adjustment to the school day. Make sure their morning routine includes a nourishing breakfast too. Even a protein bar or a breakfast shake is better than going to school on an empty stomach. You can also eliminate the mad scramble for backpacks by having each child place his or her bag by the front door before bedtime.

Set the tone for success. Before school starts, discuss the upcoming year with your kids. Talking about how you see the year going for them can help alleviate back-to-school anxiety. For example: "I see you feeling comfortable, confident, making new friends, working before you play and doing really well this year." This positive approach can influence how they handle school pressures. We often become what we hear from parents or caregivers, so make sure your message is positive and encouraging.

JERRY WEICHMAN, Ph.D., is an expert on teen and preteen issues and is the founder of The Weichman Clinic in Newport Beach, a mental and behavioral health practice for children and teens based at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute.