Easing the transition from summer to school

Students with backpacks walking up school steps

Welcome to the Educator's Playbook for Parents!

We're here to provide families with practical advice grounded in research from Penn GSE's experts in school counseling, child development, and every stage of learning. In the coming months, we're going to look at everything from anxiety, to helping your child read, to understanding the cost of college. If you don’t want to miss an issue, subscribe to our newsletter here.

We want to know what parenting questions you have. Email us at frantzj@upenn.edu, and we'll find an answer. 

So let's jump in. Because the school year is about to start, whether we're ready or not …


As the summer winds down and the days get shorter, parents and caregivers face the task of preparing their kids to go back to school. Children can express an incredible range of emotions in the weeks leading up to the new school year—everything from pure excitement to absolute anxiety. Drawing from her 35+ years of experience in the School District of Philadelphia as a teacher and school counselor, Penn GSE’s Linda Leibowitz, Co-Director of the Executive Program in School & Mental Health Counseling, has a few suggestions for parents and caregivers who are keen to smooth the transition from summer back to school for their kids.

“During the summer kids are often going to bed late, sleeping in, experiencing varying schedules, and eating lots of junk,” said Leibowitz. “The goal is to start thinking about a few key ways that parents, guardians, and kids can get back-to-school-ready.” 

“Approach new routines one at a time so you’re easing into any changes” 

By mid-August, let children know it’s time to get back into a routine. Set up back-to-school-success by regulating snacking and meals to predetermined hours, getting to bed at the same time each night, or waking up at about the same time as they would need to for school. The first few days may be rocky—complete with bedtime protests and plenty of morning yawns. Keep your eye on the prize—getting over these hurdles ahead of the school year will be better for the whole family in the long run.  

“Take a test run” 

Getting to school can be fun. Whether walking or on wheels, whatever mode of transit your children employ to get to school, take a few practice runs before school begins. Enjoy a leisurely walk, bike ride, metro trip, or drive by the building to give them a good look at where they’ll be spending much of their time. 

“Go shopping together to involve kids in decision-making” 

You are more likely to love a new pair of jeans or a delicious snack if you choose it yourself. Kids are no different. Take them with you to the grocery store to participate in picking which snacks and lunch foods to purchase. Encourage your kids to join you at the screen when purchasing school supplies from the back-to-school list. And for a thoughtful touch once school begins, include an encouraging note or a joke of the day in their lunchbox. 

“Open-ended questions are the best kind for back-to-school conversations”

Begin talking about school a few weeks before it begins. As a parent or guardian, any anxiety that you have may rub off on your kids, so keep topics light and fun. So take a few moments before talking with them to think about some of the positive aspects of school. Here are five conversation starters that Leibowitz recommends:

  • Would you like to get together with any specific friends before school begins? 
  • How do you feel about starting school?
  • Is there any way I can help make going back to school any easier for you? 
  • What are you looking forward to? 
  • Is there anything you’re nervous about? 

“The second day of school can be the hardest so keep checking in”

At home, parents and guardians are the front line for their children. But at school, that responsibility falls on the teacher. Be sure to introduce yourself to teachers ahead of time with any specific concerns you have about your child, like anxiety or big changes that happened over the summer. Depending on your school district, you may be able to connect with the school counselor before classes even begin. 

What about older kids?

  • Most schools have a new student orientation, but if they don’t, many are open to tours before the first day. It may be helpful for new students to walk into a new high school and say hello, check out the lockers, and get a feel for the place. 
  • For city kids, make sure they know how to use their public transit pass and what to do if it malfunctions. 
  • Set a good example—compliments and positive reinforcement go a long way with teens, or anyone for that matter. 

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