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Experts: As Students Start a New School Year, Preparation Is Key

Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn, N.Y., reads “The Little Engine That Could” to pre-kindergarteners during his Catholic Schools Week visit to Divine Mercy Catholic Academy in Ozone Park, Jan. 30, 2023. (Photo: OSV News/Gregory A. Shemitz)


WASHINGTON — Back to school for many students doesn’t mean going back but instead starting something completely new — as is the case for those starting their first years at elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, or college.

While these 5- to 18-year-olds are stepping into new territories, experts say there are steps parents can take to help them adjust to these transitions.

What students across the board in these new transitions are facing is fear of the unknown, and one major way to deal with that comes straight from the Boy Scouts’ motto: Be prepared.

Or as Chelda Smith, associate professor of education at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, put it: “Preparation is the key to success.”

In an interview with The Tablet, Smith outlined steps parents can take to help kindergarteners to college freshmen, speaking from her own experience as an educator but also as a parent of a student about to start kindergarten.

Smith said one first step to put aside some of the mystery of the new school is for parents of pre-kindergarten or kindergarten students to familiarize their child with the school environment.

So, in the days leading up to school, she advises visiting the playground or even the school property or checking out the area around it.

“For all grade levels, dry runs are phenomenal,” she said.

And if the student will be riding the school bus for the first time, she advises parents to get the bus route from the school and drive it themselves to see where it goes and how long it could take.

“A sense of familiarity calms down anxiety,” she said, noting that the nerves can go both ways, because parents can bring their own set of worries to the new school year.

When possible, she also suggests, especially for the youngest grades, that parents go over the schedule, if it’s available, and talk with their children about what will be expected and what the daily routine will be like.

Some things to avoid, for all grade levels she said, is rushing, which can be easier said than done, but as she put it: “The more you have a routine, the less you will have to rush.” In other words: Get the next day’s outfit picked out the night before and the school lunch ready.

For older kids, those starting sixth or ninth grade or transferring schools, Smith said one thing parents can do is to get acquainted with other families by having their children take part in groups, clubs, or sports teams that meet over the summer. That way, she said, even if the students don’t necessarily make great friends in the summer programs, they will at least know some people when the school year starts.

Smith also advises getting a map of the school — for all grades, and especially, for college freshmen, so students can be familiar with the space. For new college students, attending orientation sessions on campus is a plus and even better, she said, would be to do a summer work program at the school.

Smith points out that in the post-pandemic world, young people have had social development delays or haven’t socialized as well, and transitions are more challenging; they need support.

The website, sponsored by Holy Cross Family Ministries, also has some pointers for parents coping with this transition time. An Aug. 15 post said: “The trouble with transitions is that they highlight the fact that we really aren’t in control of anything. Transition means change is coming, whether we are ready and willing or not!”

It also adds that it’s “hard to step out from what is known and comfortable and start off on a new path that we aren’t at all sure about,” but stresses that change can be good.

“New paths stretch our trust muscles that God is going to work everything out and hold us as we travel this unknown land,” it said.