School’s out for the summer: you’re relishing the reprieve from a busy schedule, and the kids are ecstatic. Well . . . all except one. Your most sensitive child is happy to be on vacation, too, but you hear the uneasiness in her voice whenever the conversation turns to the coming school year.

Unlike her siblings, she is starting a new school in the fall, and a sense of nervousness about her new social setting hangs over your child like the first wispy clouds of a gathering storm.

Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to help dispel this nervousness and make transition into a new school easier. Whether she’s beginning elementary school, middle school or high school, the checklist below will help you map out a leisurely plan to prepare your child over the coming weeks. That way, you’ll avoid a getting-ready-for-school rush at the end of summer that can create tension and make back-to-school jitters worse.

Keep in touch

Arrange play dates and sleepovers to help keep friendships with schoolmates strong over the summer break. Even if your child’s friends will be dispersing to different schools in the fall, your son or daughter will find it reassuring to spend time with peers who are facing a similar, life-changing transition.

Consider a head start

Review your child’s last report card and consider their strengths and weaknesses. Could they benefit from a summer class? Courses in keyboarding, essay writing or improving study skills provide helpful skills for teens entering high school. Tutoring in challenging subjects will boost confidence in their ability to manage the workload in the fall.

Give your child an opportunity to explore activities they excel at, too. Summer camps focused on sports, crafts and hobbies build self-assurance and allow kids to practice the social skills needed to initiate friendships.

Build confidence

Always be positive about the opportunities that await in the new school: new friends, new electives or new after-school clubs. Convey your confidence in your child’s ability to adapt and thrive in their new environment.

To help your child initiate new friendships, teach them some great opening lines for starting conversations and role-play how they might be used in different situations. If your child has a unique learning style or special challenges, are they comfortable making their needs known? Do they need to rehearse what they might say to teachers and friends?

Deal with details

Challenges that seem inconsequential to parents can make kids of all ages feel inadequate. Make a point of asking your child about tasks they feel they must master before school starts. Do they know how to tie their shoelaces? Can they set their cell phone to silent mode? Do they know how to access all the functions on their calculator? Do they know how to use a combination lock to secure their locker?

Loosen up on clothing issues

Cool clothes can be a big confidence builder – especially for tweens and teens. Your willingness to splurge on some special outfits will help your child feel much more positive about their impending debut.

Show the way

If your child will be making their own way to school, plan a few visits to the school over the summer to familiarize them with the route. Pack a picnic in a backpack, then walk to school and enjoy the school playground or outdoor eating area. Point out hazards along the route your child should avoid, such as dangerous places to cross the street due to limited visibility, or yards with dogs that may cause a fright.

If your child will be using public transit, travel by bus to a fun destination such as the movies, or to a restaurant for dessert, taking the route that passes the school. Note landmarks near home and school and ensure your child understands the fare system. Time your trip to ensure your child allows plenty of time to get to class on their first day of school.

Tour the school

Many elementary schools will arrange for graduating classes to take a tour of nearby middle schools, junior high or high schools before the end of the school year. If your child did not have this opportunity, contact the new school in the week before classes begin, when teachers and administrative staff are commonly in. Ask if you can walk through the school with your child. Note the location of key facilities such as washrooms, lockers, the office, the library and the gym.

Set expectations

When kids enter a new life stage, they often assume that the "old rules" no longer apply. Be sure to discuss expectations for your child’s behaviour well before the new term starts.

Try to anticipate new freedoms and responsibilities your child may not have had in the past. Will she be making her own lunch from now on? Who is responsible for locking up the house in the morning? Will you allow her to visit the mall or a friend’s home at lunchtime? Can she use her cell phone in class? What time must she be home after school? Who must she contact if she does not plan to come straight home? Is she permitted to catch a ride home in a friend’s car? By establishing clear expectations well ahead of time, you’ll be ready to encourage and support your child during the stressful first weeks of term, instead of haggling over unresolved issues.

Re-evaluate your schedule

Now is the time to take a look at your own commitments for the fall. Do you need to free up your schedule so you can be more available during your child’s settling-in period? Don’t underestimate the reassurance you can provide by just "being there" for your son or daughter. Keeping your home environment relaxed will also help your child cope with the emotional demands of those first few weeks at school. Joining a school sports team can fast-track new friendships; rearranging your agenda to transport your son or daughter to games and practices may be a small price to pay to gain a few buddies for your child. You may also want to consider joining a school committee. The friendships you forge with other parents can help reinforce the friendships your child is initiating at school. Your connection with the school through the committee will help your child feel at home at the school, too.

For most kids, the first day of school is a tremendous relief: their uncertainty surrounding the unknown is finally dispelled, and endless imagined problems are replaced by real issues that can be tackled and solved. Those first few weeks may well be bumpy, but through it all, your child will learn invaluable life-lessons: that change opens doors to new opportunities and friendships, and that they can rely on the help of a loving, supportive parent.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2009 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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