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Kids Who Struggle with Change: How to Set Them Up For Success on the First Day of School

The first day of school can be nerve-wracking for any kid (or teacher), but for kids who have a hard time adjusting to change, it can be a nightmare. Even if a child has attended the same school every year of their life, knows their teacher beforehand, and will have friends in their class, they can still be scared of it.

For kids with behavioral problems or mental health issues, that fear can manifest in a lot of different ways.

It could look like increasingly frequent meltdowns in the weeks leading up to school, a spike in aggression at home, an increase in emotional sensitivity, or even lack of sleep. Each child is different, but if you notice your kiddo acting a little “off” as the school year approaches, know that it might be due to anxiety.

Here are some ideas for reducing their stress about the change they’ll be going through.

And, yes. It is even a “change” when they’ve been in school for years and years and years. Deviating from their summer schedule, which they’ve probably only just gotten used to, will require a new round of adjustment.

1. Consider staring a back-to-school countdown with them, but be careful how you deliver it.

Some kids with behavior issues or emotional challenges can be very successful with timelines, schedules, and being given warnings ahead of time, but it’s crucial that, if you decide to use a countdown, you’re neutral about it. Our first instinct is to portray excitement so our kids will mimic our optimism, however, children with fear of change tend to see “excitement” as something overwhelming.

Talk about going back to school with a calm, neutral tone to avoid building anxiety.

2. Ask what they want their daily schedule to be

You’ll be coming into a new season as the school year starts, which means implementing a new schedule in your home.

Let your child be a part of the process!

You can ask them things such as, “Do you like to eat breakfast before you put your clothes on or after? Do you want to set your clothes out the night before school, or do you like to pick them out in the morning? I know you like to watch cartoons in the morning so how can we fit that into your morning routine?”

The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.

Make a schedule with them that fits into your time frame and then print it out. In our house, the best way was to put simple pictures next to each item on the list and then laminate it after we printed it.

We stuck to it every day and it was even easy for our littlest one to read because she could just go straight down the list by pictures.

3. Teach them ahead of time what the first day will involve

On the very first day of school, what will their school day look like? This would be hard for you to know without speaking with your child’s teacher, but I’m sure if you give the school a call, they can tell you this information.

Better yet, speak with the teacher on open house night and let them know about how your child struggles with change. Ask them what the schedule will be that first day, and let them know you’ll be sharing that information with your child.

Odds are, it will include a lot of procedural practices, such as emergency drills and how to ask to use the restroom. Even in upper grades, teachers go over procedures for the first few weeks of school to make sure they don’t have to re-teach those expectations all year long.

Help your kiddo by letting them know all the scenarios they’ll be swept through that day.

4. Make sure they’ve gotten enough sleep the night/week before

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Make sure you don’t wait until the very last night to start getting them to bed “on time.” Practice this gradually as the month before progresses.

Each night, move their bed time up fifteen minutes earlier until they’ve reached the actual bed time they need to have for the school year. The week before school starts should be almost entirely “on schedule.”

Without enough sleep, you’re setting your kiddo up for a meltdown of overwhelming emotions.

5. Plan ahead to avoid as much stress as possible on that first day

This is probably applicable to every family, whether their kids are “average” or not, but it’s especially true for families with sensitive kids. The more you plan ahead the week before, the more smoothly your first morning will go.

And we all know that the more smoothly a sensitive kid’s morning goes, the more smoothly the rest of the day is likely to go. (Notice I said “is likely.” Haha.)

Set their clothes out the night before (if they don’t want to choose them on their own the next morning). Pack their lunch. Have the schedule printed out. Set several alarms. Talk to them about how they’ll get home.

Have backpacks packed. Get the forms filled out. Drop the school supplies off at the school on open house night so your kid isn’t trying to lug it all into school the first day.

Have your own crap set out ahead of time, too. If you’re stressed and running around for your stuff, it doesn’t matter how calm you’ve made their morning. Your stress will rub off on them, and it will all be for not!


That’s it, guys. Let me know if you have any other ideas!

Good luck on your first days of school this year, and take lots of pictures.

Happy parenting, friends. 🙂

Kids Who Struggle with Change: How to Set Them Up For Success on the First Day of School

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2018). Kids Who Struggle with Change: How to Set Them Up For Success on the First Day of School. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 25, 2019, from


Last updated: 11 Aug 2018
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