How parents can help children adjust to the new school year

Back-to-school season is underway. Parents, caregivers and children across the county are adjusting and making changes to their routines. Going back to school can be a challenge. For some parents and caregivers there are questions about how to navigate the school system. It’s also an emotional time. Families can experience a range of emotions, from overwhelmedness to worry to sadness to joy.

For insight, tips and ideas to help parents, caregivers and their children, KPBS spoke with Richard Gijon, who has served in the public school system and community-based nonprofits since 2003, and is currently the community schools site coordinator at Herbert Hoover High School. in the San Diego Unified School District. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What should parents say to their children as they go back to school?

Gijon: I think the first thing that our children need to hear is “I love you” and be told they will be successful in school. The first thing is to affirm them emotionally. Parents can let them know they are going to miss them now that they are back at school. I think that just really builds a lot of emotional strength for our kids. And they really need to hear that. I think they also need to hear parents and caregivers say: “You’re going to be successful in school.” We need to affirm that from the beginning.

Parents and caregivers should also remind their kids that they are safe. Let them know they are surrounded by adults who care for them. You’re surrounded by people that want to see you succeed.

What should parents and caregivers do to help children adjust to focusing on school?

Gijon: I think all children will really thrive from building a schedule and a routine as school starts. Maybe the first thing you do when you get home is just pause for 15 minutes, in silence, maybe parents and caregivers can read a book together. Maybe they can watch something that everyone enjoys but having that time to pause and to refresh and then go into the routine. Build a space at home that’s designed for learning. Creating a space not just for homework but a place to read, a place to do educational games, a place to have that learning space is really crucial.

Lastly, if the school is hosting any welcome back to school events or any type of partnering organization like a PTSA or another organization on campus is doing a social or a connect, attend those events, if possible. I think getting to know the teacher before parents and caregivers walk into the classroom the first day, there’s such a benefit to that. It removes some of those fears, some of those concerns. And there’s already a connection when everything is very new on the first day of school.

How can parents and caregivers make going back to school a positive experience for children?

Gijon: It really depends on the approach that parents and caregivers take. From a couple of weeks before school even begins to the day that school starts, expressing a positive attitude about school and really hyping it up is important. Parents and caregivers want to say things such as: “It’s going to be a fantastic year. You’re going to make a lot of new friends. You’re going to have a fun time. You’re going to have a brand-new teacher this year.” Parents and caregivers should really make it more about celebrating the newness than the dread that a lot of our kiddos feel about going back to school.

How can parents and caregivers help children who feel frustration from going back to school?

Gijon: Behind the frustration is always a root cause. And I think in this discussion, when parents are seeing that their kiddos are frustrated, really trying to dive deep and figure out why they’re frustrated. We see the emotional frustration come out. You know their avoidance. They’re not excited. Maybe they cry. Maybe they’re visibly agitated, but trying to get to the why, Is there separation anxiety? Did they have a bad experience the previous year? And now they’re bringing that bad experience into this year. Some students when their older siblings leave their school, and they’re the only one that’s going to be there that becomes a concern. It’s really trying to find the root cause and then being able to address it. My suggestion is, if parents are having trouble really navigating and trying to find the root cause, reach out to the school’s counselor.

I think it also makes a big difference when the teachers and counselors know that parents and caregivers are feeling a certain way. The teacher can also help address some of those concerns in the classroom.

What can parents and caregivers do to help children open up about how things are going at school?

Gijon: I think building those times to really have those conversations is important — also, having questions that are designed for a response. I know with my kiddos I’ve made the mistake of asking the question “What did you learn at school today?” And most of the response that I get is “Oh, nothing.” And it gets really frustrating when you know they did six hours of work in that classroom. I had to get really creative with my questions and instead ask something such as:

  • “What was your favorite thing from school today?” 
  • “What was something funny that happened at school today?”  
  • “What was your favorite subject today in school?” 
  • “Which friends did you play with today?” 
  • “What did you do?” 

Parents and caregivers want to ask open-ended questions. They don’t have to be all about academics. They can be about who their friends are. You know, what made them laugh at school today. I think those questions normalize those social, emotional needs also and make it normal for the kids to talk about it every day.
I would encourage parents and caregivers to share how their day was. An example could be to talk about a coworker that told a funny story. I think that back and forth with the students and children makes it even more powerful that not only are they sharing, but so is their parent or caregiver.

What are simple things that parents and caregivers can do at home to help children do well at school?

Gijon: I would say students need to be aware that parents and caregivers are a partner in education. From the first day, they can drop off their children, walk over and introduce themselves to their children’s teacher. The students know that their parents or caregiver is in constant communication with the school. I think it’s going to set them up in a good place to know that mom and dad, auntie, uncle, grandma, grandparent, whoever it may be really cares about my education. Children will know they should give it their best because their parents or caregivers are going to be active participants in their education.

What can parents and caregivers do if their child is not motivated as they restart school?

Gijon: There’s a lot of debate these days about whether a child should have a consequence as a result of not being motivated or participating in school. It goes back to what is behind the lack of motivation. I think sometimes there’s underlying causes. Whether its fears, concerns, anxiety, other things happening within the family home that affects school. It could also be something blatant. For example, children can say I just don’t want to do anything. These are two separate situations. If it’s more on the side of, there’s an underlying cause. Parents and caregivers should consider finding out what is the root issue and address it to get support.

What can parents and caregivers do if they are worried about gun violence at school?

Gijon: I would say you’re not the only one. I was reading an article about a Pew Research Center study that came out last year. It said, 32% of parents and guardians of children in K-12 schools are either very or extremely worried about school shootings. Unfortunately, in our country we’ve seen too many examples of school shootings. Uvalde being the last massive school shooting where so many innocent lives were lost. This is not going to be like a magic answer that automatically takes away any concerns. I think there are things that parents can do to help alleviate some of the concerns and help build capacity in the community to build more safety around schools. The first thing I would say is to speak to the child’s teacher and principal about their site to learn about the specific policies and procedures, should a similar event happen. I can tell you that all schools practice some kind of lockdown drill, some sort of procedure to make their students safe. I think talking to school officials could help alleviate some of their concerns and fears.

I would also recommend attending any safety forums in the community to discuss concerns or consider setting one up and invite local law enforcement.

How can parents and caregivers ensure schools are complying with rules regarding an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

Gijon: Parents with children with disabilities have very specific educational rights under the Individuals with Disabilities, Education Act (IDEA). These rights are called the procedural safeguards. These are built into the process to educate parents on their rights. I will say, as being around our special education teachers, they are some of the most amazing people around, and they want to support students. But it’s important that parents realize that they are not an attendee at any meeting, they are not just a parent or caregiver, they are a partner in that plan. Parents and caregivers have a voice when that plan is created and can definitely speak into that plan.

Should they have concerns, the first person they should address would be their case manager. For students who have a special education teacher or a service provider that leads their plan, parents and caregivers should speak to them first. If that doesn’t work, then they should speak to the site administrator, the principal or vice principal that’s responsible over special education. If that doesn’t remedy the concerns, each district or school has what’s called a Special Education Local Plan Area or a (SELPA) they have built in their own procedures of who parents can address should they have a concern. Depending on the school district, I would recommend the teacher first, then the site administrator, if not, then you go to the next person. That could require a little bit of research to know who to go to next for help. But parents need to realize that they have rights under their IEP. I would highly suggest those who are in California visit the California Department of Education and they can type in procedural safeguards. And they will basically list about 10 to 12 specific rights that they have as parents, and what to do should those rights not be met, and it explains a lot more than we can go over here in this forum. But there’s a lot of resources to support them as well.

How can parents or caregivers get support for children who have developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder or fetal alcohol syndrome?

Gijon: I’m not sure if parents are aware, but if they have a child that they’re noticing that even at age 1, age 2, they may not be reaching their developmental milestones at the appropriate age, they can work with their doctors to get an assessment. Many children starting at age 3 can start receiving special education services from the school district. I would say, for parents or caregivers of a youngster, of a toddler, of a baby, and they’re noticing that maybe their little one is not achieving those milestones, they should speak with their pediatrician. Then from there be referred out to for example, here in San Diego, to the regional center for assessment. This helps build a plan to support children whether it’s for physical therapy to occupational therapy to speech therapy. Also, once children reach a certain age, there is a handoff to the local school district, and then they can build the IEP. So, when their child does get to transitional kindergarten or to kindergarten, it’s not just a rough start, the school should already have a copy of that IEP. Don’t wait for day one to start, reach out to the school before school begins.

There are different avenues to pursue. If they don’t have an IEP. that might be the right process to follow. There are also what are known as 504 plans. These plans identify what the concerns are and what else is in place to support that student so they find success in the classroom. Sometimes parents and caregivers may not notice a concern with a child. But, when that child starts school, educators may see certain things, so they may be the ones to speak with the parents.