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back to school struggles

The backpacks are packed and the indoor shoes have been labeled. Back to school season is here. But sometimes starting a new school year can be more complicated than picking out new pencil cases and lunch boxes.

The start of school can result in anxiety, fresh logistical issues and burnout—for all parties. Back to school stress relief anyone? But just like the kiddos who will soon be studying for tests, a little preparation ahead of time on our part can help set everyone up for back to school success.

We talked to teachers about what common back to school struggles students face each September and how parents can help. (Don't worry—there's no pop quiz at the end!) Here they are:

1. Separation anxiety

For first-timers entering kindergarten and even older kids who've had tough summers, leaving mom or dad behind to go off to school can be scary and sad.

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How to deal: If you suspect your child will suffer separation anxiety when they go to school this year, the Mayo Clinic recommends spending time apart before summer ends and touring the school together before the big day.

2. Dealing with all those unknowns

General anxiety can be just as stressful as separation anxiety. According to Monica Goncalves, a New Jersey State Teacher of the Year Finalist for 2017, September brings a lot of unknowns for kids. “Especially for the younger grades, I find, they get a little restless because they don't know what's next," Goncalves says. “Parents just need to be very aware that students are going to be feeling anxious."

How to deal: If you suspect your child is feeling anxious, talk about what's going on in their back-to-school transition. If they are nervous about a new teacher, classroom or school, you may be able to give them an early introduction or tour to ease some of that anxiety before the first day of classes.

3. When your child's social group changes

Maybe your child is changing schools this year. Or maybe they're in the same school, but their BFF moved. Whatever the situation, September brings changes to a child's social scene—and a bad start can lead to a rough grade-long experience.

“Parents need to be aware of the new friendships that will be formed, and let them grow," says Goncalves. “But keep an eye on them to a certain degree just to see if they are healthy relationships."

How to deal: If a friendship doesn't seem healthy, talk to your child about why you're concerned, but don't blame their new friend. If a child understands what a healthy friendship looks like and why it benefits them, they'll be more likely to seek those out and avoid friendships that could hurt them.

4. Becoming over-scheduled

According to Wisconsin teacher Amy Rosno, time management is one of the biggest struggles kids face in September. “Kids today have so much going on in their lives beyond the normal school day," Rosno says.

How to deal: For primary students, cutting down on extracurriculars near the beginning of the school year may help parents and kids balance the transition. Extra activities can be added back in once the school routine is firmly in place.

5. Too little tech

“Technology is always a point of frustration," says Rosno, who teaches online. “It's hard to believe that there are students who still struggle with some of the basics of how to use a computer."

How to deal: Parents can help their kids avoid feeling less-than-tech-savvy by finding out what kinds of technology they'll be using in the school year and giving them some experience before hand. (For example, if the classroom is full of Chromebooks that will be foreign to your Mac-user, you may want to head to Best Buy and get a demo).

6. Too much tech

For some kids, not knowing how to use technology is the problem. For others, wanting to use it All. The. Time distracts from academics—especially after a summer spent online. hat's when adults have to help kids find balance.

“Social media and technology is here to stay. It's not going anywhere and we need to prepare our students," Goncalves explains, adding that she's not a big fan of taking tech away entirely, as it's a skill kids are going to need for the future.

How to deal: She recommends parents talk to kids about limits and responsible use at school and at home.

7. Too much homework

It's a common complaint in September (and really, all year). According to the National PTA, parents should determine if homework complaints are really due to volume—or if there's something else at play.

How to deal: If your child feels they have too much homework, talk about why they feel that way before talking to the teacher.

8. Understanding the homework itself

Sometimes kids will complain about the amount of homework, but really the issue stems from unclear directions or the child not understanding material taught in class.

How to deal: Once you discover the root cause you can work with your child and the teacher to make homework less stressful.

9. When your child “hates school"

If your kid prefers homework to class, that may be an issue in itself. Kids who say they “hate school" are often having problems socially or academically. According to Rosno, it's common for kids to stay silent when they are struggling with learning, so encourage your kids to speak up.

How to deal: Same goes for social problems, though those may be a little tougher to solve. Kristen Record, the 2011 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year, says kids who are hesitant to tell their parents what's going on will sometimes open up to a teacher or counselor. If this is the case, she says not to take it personally. “The most important thing you want [is for your child] to feel is that they could talk to you if they wanted to, even if they don't."

10. When a solid start becomes an academic slump

Some kids start off the school year with a hunger for knowledge—only to be coasting academically by Christmas break. If your child is experiencing this loss of initial enthusiasm, talk to them about why and what would keep them engaged year round. Losing steam after September may not be a problem in the early years, but it can have serious consequences by the time your child is a senior, Goncalves says.

How to deal: Kids face a lot of struggles during the back-to-school season, but teachers say the first step in helping them is for parents to stay involved. If you're aware of what happens between those ringing bells, you'll be a partner and a participant in your child's education not just in September, but the whole year through.

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This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades, "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4-year-old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year:

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keep an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Follow children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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