Back-to-school preparation is about more than picking out new binders and lunch boxes. Parents may also need to emotionally prepare their children for school, especially if they have anxiety about returning. Here are five tips to help kids get mentally ready for the new school year. 

1. Make sure the school is a good fit with sound educational practices. For preschoolers, choose a play-based, developmentally appropriate program where your involvement, if you wish, is welcomed with open arms. For elementary and older students, make sure the school facilitates how we know children learn best: lots of movement, open-ended instruction, methods that value intrinsic over extrinsic motivation, plenty of opportunities in the arts, and big ideas in which students can strengthen critical thinking muscles. 

2. Let your child know you value education by helping out at their school: volunteer, donate art supplies, find guest speakers, mentor, tutor or assist the teacher in extending those big idea projects. 

3. Make sure your child has had a “summer,” meaning a proper break from school-type activities. Were summer plans too structured? Too many work hours for your teen? Arrange a sleepover or drive north for a change of scenery. Nature excursions can be inexpensive and uncrowded. A last hurrah can change a bland summer into a memorable one and make the seasonal shift to school seem more appropriate, even in early August. 

4. Connect your child with school friends to have familiar faces around as school resumes. Parents can build relationships that create the “village” before the school year gets busy. Connect with teachers by crafting a getting-to-know-you letter with what young children would like their teacher to know about them – and keep a copy to remember what’s important to them at this age. 

5. Acknowledge your feelings, too. After the hardships we’ve all experienced over the last 18 months, there are emotions to process and more will emerge. Children perceive this in their loved ones. Whether you feel uneasy about COVID-restrictions or the lack of them, help children navigate them to feel (and be) safe and protected. Their teachers will be doing the same.  

Some parents worry that their children fell behind last year. Others praise their resilience in surviving and adjusting to enormous challenges. Educators know children develop at their natural evolutionary pace for their brains and bodies and are best served when we skip no steps in a rush to “catch up.” Students need time and space to explore, play, study and make sense of their world.  

The somewhat arbitrary timelines we’ve created for learners should bend to meet children exactly where they are on the first day of school. And while it’s not on the class supply list, emotionally supporting your child in preparation for returning to school is just what they need.

– Nola Enge, PH.D., is director at The Hills School, 5524 E. Lafayette Blvd. For more: