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Lauren Nietz: School’s start can be a source of stress for kids; here’s how to ease the adjustment

Lauren Nietz: “For younger kids, it helps when parents help them to anticipate and talk about change, by putting it into a context that works for them.”

As the end of summer loomed and cheery back-to-school ads started popping up everywhere, I was the kind of kid who felt a sense of dread building in the pit of my stomach. It’s not as though I had a hard time at school, but I just never wanted to go back in the fall. The idea of summer’s freedom fading — and a return to the grind of everyday life — made me feel anxious and out of sorts.

I’m not the only kid who’s ever felt that way, said Lauren Nietz, LICSW, a therapist, consultant and trainer at the Minneapolis-based Washburn Center for Children. Nietz, who’s been working at Washburn for more than a decade, explained that back-to-school season is a stressful time for many children. 

“Some kids love school, so the first days are fun for them,” said Nietz, who’s provided in-home family therapy as well as day-treatment for children and families enrolled in Washburn’s programs. “Other kids don’t want to think about going back to school until the day before school starts. Both reactions are normal, and we need to let children know that we are there to support them with the whole range of emotions.”

Washburn, one of Minnesota’s largest children’s mental health facilities, employs more than 122 clinicians like Nietz. They provide assistance for children with a variety of needs, including attention deficit disorders, trauma, behavioral problems, anxiety, learning difficulties and depression.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Nietz, as she and her family were about to head out on an end-of-summer road trip before her kids go back to school Sept. 8.

MinnPost: Why is end of summer and the return to school stressful for children and families?

Lauren Nietz: Fall is both exciting and hard because during the summer most families have been able to change up their routines a bit and maybe even take a vacation. So when fall comes around again it’s hard because we have to return to things like concrete start and stop times and uniforms and supplies. Everyone is feeling the stress of the deadlines, both kids and parents.

And once school starts, kids will be spending all day in new classrooms with different teachers. Even if they are in the same building as last year, it can be hard. Kids’ brains are occupied by figuring out new pathways, like, “Were does this hallway go?” or “Where is my locker?” or “Where is the closest bathroom?” Building those new brain pathways make kids feel exhausted at the end of the day, even when they are happy about the change.

But as you can see from this range of questions, many have an edge of stress in them. What’s important is to acknowledge all emotions in your children, and provide support when it is needed.

MP: What are some of the ways parents can make life easier for kids who feel stress around this time of year?

LN: For younger kids, it helps when parents help them to anticipate and talk about change, by putting it into a context that works for them, like, “In four sleeps, the school bus is going to come. Then you are going to see Miss Smith, your new teacher at your new school.” Open houses are also helpful for kids to see what their school building will look like and where their classroom is going to be this year. Even kids who’ve been in the same school for years can still get see a benefit from this kind of gentle re-introduction.

MP: Is back-to-school stress more acute for kids whose home lives are traumatic?

LN: I think stress around this annual adjustment happens across the board. From the mainstream kids I know to the kids I work with at Washburn who have been impacted by trauma, the shift is hard for everyone.

Lauren Nietz
Lauren Nietz

At Washburn, we work with stressed families, and when there is stress piled on top of their normal life, this is challenging. Luckily in the Twin Cities there are wonderful schools that reach out to families to help smooth the back-to-school transition, people like school social workers and liaisons.

I think part of the first couple of months of school are going to be devoted to adjusting to the expectations that schools have for kids and how parents are providing for them at home. We’re all kind of managing together, trying to get back on track until we settle into a routine that feels good for everyone.

For kids who come from families that are experiencing stress, sometimes school can feel like a nice, safe place. At school, a child can feel cared for and welcome. At school they can get many of their needs met. This reality puts a lot of pressure on school, because they can’t do everything for everyone, but for many of our kids at Washburn, school is a nice place to be during the day.

MP: What back-to-school coping skills do you encourage for the families you see every at work?

LN: We spend time anticipating what might be different about the coming school year. We talk about what their school-year routine is going to be like. I talk to parents about that as well as the kids. I also have the kids tell me about their top worry and the top thing they are excited about in the coming school year. One way to do that is by playing a “same-different” game. I ask, “What do you think will be the same about school this year? What will be different?” After they have been in school for a couple of weeks, we talk about it again and decide whether reality lived up to their expectations.

MP: Do many kids fall behind academically during the summer? Do teachers feel like much of the first few weeks are devoted to catch-up?

LN: I have heard from teachers that at the beginning of the school year there is always little bit of time spent reminding kids about what they learned last year. I think it is a nice review opportunity, and not necessarily wasted time. In many ways I think kids benefit from the review. What is more stressful are the new responsibilities and being a year older, plus the adjustment to waking up earlier, getting to the bus stop, cutting back on free time and ramping up after-school activities. These days, a lot of families have kids signed up for multiple nights of activities each week during the school year, so that is a big adjustment.

MP: What about year-round schools? Do kids who attend schools without long summer breaks have less back-to-school stress?

LN: I know that there are many schools like Crossroads Elementary in St. Paul that go year-round, and many kids and parents are happy with that option. But as someone who is a big believer in the value of summer camp as an educational and social experience, I’d hate to see kids miss out on that unique summertime opportunity. I think summer camp is a great place for kids to let a different side of their personalities come out. Summer camps are usually outside. For kids who learn well with their bodies, it is a different, freeing experience. As long as we can allow kids to be outside and in water doing big-body activities, I think it is a priceless opportunity. I’d hate to see that go away completely. 

MP: I don’t think that summer break is going away for everyone. What are other ways that parents can help ease the stress of the new school year?

LN: One practical thing is making sure that kids have a good breakfast every morning. Many schools are now offering free breakfasts for students, which I think is wonderful. Another great thing is settling back into a comfortable, regular school-year routine, like gathering the family together for dinner and giving all members time to debrief and talk about their days.

Another one of the biggest back-to-school adjustments for many families is sleep. Getting back into that early wakeup time can be a big stressor. If your kids haven’t already started school, you can help them to have an easier adjustment once school starts by going to bed 15 minutes earlier every night leading up to the start of school.

MP: What’s the best thing that parents and other adults can do to encourage kids’ excitement around learning?

LN: Being a parent, having been a child myself and spending my career working with children, I intimately understand that there is very little better on this earth than the delight on a grownup’s face when they see a child. When children enter the classroom in our day-treatment program, they all want somebody to be very interested in what they have to say, what they are dreaming about, what is making them excited. They want to see that curiosity and enthusiasm reflected in our faces. It’s so important for their development.  

Parental curiosity is key. It can be as simple as asking your kids, “What was your day like?” “What made you happy?” “What was difficult?” “What do you need?” Giving kids time to reflect on and relive their day is important, even when their response is short. We need to give our kids permission to say a lot or say a little.

I think it is easy to not have those conversations because we all get so busy. But if you take the time to talk, even if it’s just when they walk in the door or you when pick them up in the car after school, it makes a big difference for everyone. Even though they don’t always let you know it, on some level kids of all ages crave that kind of attention.

MP: I don’t remember this happening when I was a kid, but in recent years I’ve been seeing a lot of pictures of students being welcomed back to school by enthusiastic groups of teachers and administrators. When did this start?

LN: I’ve seen that, too. I don’t know if it is something that educators are reading about or if it’s some kind of educational trend, but it’s working. When a teacher lights up when a child walks into a room, that child responds. When a child feels welcome and encouraged and open to share their own enthusiasm about learning, they are a lot more open to what a teacher is teaching them.

These welcoming moments are not an act: There are teachers out there who are really excited to have their classes back in the fall. This is why they went into the field in the first place. I love teachers. I love education. I think teachers’ jobs are incredibly challenging, and I appreciate that they are so devoted to my kids.

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