08/31/2012 02:30 EDT | Updated 10/31/2012 05:12 EDT

Remain positive, keep lines of communication open to ease back-to-school jitters

TORONTO - Going back to school can be an exciting time of year, but the experience can bring with it many emotions.

It's natural to be a little nervous, especially for a child starting kindergarten or for youngsters who are making divisional changes, such as going from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school.

But keeping the lines of communication open can go far to ease the transition from those lazy days of summer to the more structured days in the classroom, says a psychologist with the Calgary Board of Education.

"Just be open and talk about the fact that everyone gets a bit nervous and try to differentiate what's excitement with anxiety. Talk about all the positive things in school," Denise Watts, supervisor of psychological support services for the board, said in an interview.

"Make the whole process of going back seem exciting and a natural kind of tension around there being new things but not really making it seem terribly scary," she said, adding that "for 95 per cent of the kids within a few days they're in with their friends and they're enjoying the things that school has to offer."

Remind them that they're going to see their friends again, along with something else that they like, such as art class or gym.

Watts said she's seen some parents who seem more stressed than the children. "Sometimes you see these moms coming for the first day of school and the child is fine and they're crying their eyes out."

Watts has a list of ways to alleviate stress.

"For me it's communicate, be available, normalize the situation, predict what might happen — this is where your coat will go, this is where your lunch will go, and so on — so that they feel they know their way around, preparing and planning ahead, getting medical and dental checkups, making sure they're eating, being careful about too many other things going on, be willing to seek professional resources if a problem goes on too long."

Schools attempt to ease early-year jitters, such as holding open houses or tours or setting up a system of peer buddies. Knowing where to go on the first day of school can help.

"Some schools do announce lists in June, but they can change over the summer which is why a lot of schools are reluctant to announce," said Cathy Ward, communications manager for the Calgary Board of Education. "Depending on the registrations they get and the demographics it can change.

"In an elementary school if they don't get enough students in Grade 3 and 4 for two separate classes it may be a split class and it may be a different teacher. But usually that information is posted before the first day of school at the schools themselves. They're generally not arriving on the first day not knowing where they're going to go."

Sometimes children don't like the class they end up in. Maybe their friend is in another class, they had a bad experience with another child in the class, or there's something about the teacher they feel uncomfortable with.

But moving to another class is not always an option.

Talk calmly to the school staff about your concerns and their rationalization. "Reassure the child that you're going to make the situation better for them and there might be other options for doing that rather than just moving the class."

Teachers are trained to expect some anxiety and they have strategies to create an optimum learning environment, such as making sure seating is flexible or that kids are teamed with suitable partners.

Simon Pequegnat of Guelph, Ont., expressed some worries to his mom, Iris Lambert, about making new friends when he was about to enter Grade 7 at a new and larger school. She told him she'd had the same concerns prior to starting at the very same school when she was a student. She quickly became friends with a girl in her class and the relationship with that person has continued for some 40 years.

"That reassured him. He didn't feel as nervous about changing schools," Lambert said. Simon, now 15, easily made the transition to high school. "He didn't seem to have the qualms about starting high school last year because he had so easily met friends in Grade 7 and 8 and he knew that they were going to high school with him."

For most kids it's a few days till they find a friend and re-establish routines, Watts said. "But anything that's really persistent or anything where the child is having nightmares or school refusal, those sorts of things, obviously that has to be dealt with much quicker."

School boards have professional resources to help with learning issues, bullying or mental-health problems like depression.

For teenagers, many of their worries surround where they fit in the social order, whether they have the right clothes and are their marks good enough to get them admitted to a particular college or university.

Make the home conducive to doing homework, be aware of what's going on by reading school bulletins or emails, and help them make choices around course options.

Try to clear your schedule during the first few days of school so you're more available and get bed times and breakfasts back on schedule.

Don't overload kids with extracurricular activities.

"In this society people want their children to experience everything and can often overdo extracurricular activities and so the child has no free time, no quiet time," Watts said.

"Competing activities start happening on the same day and create huge stress around making sure everything is done."