By Hugh C. McBride

It happens every year – and every year it seems to catch us by surprise.

As memories of Fourth of July fireworks begin to fade and sales signs begin to sprout in storefront windows, families across the nation begin to realize that back-to-school time has snuck up on them again.

Though your children may want to pretend that summer will never end, you know that the return to the classroom grows closer with every passing day. And although no formula has yet been created to ensure a seamless transition between summer vacation and the start of school, the following five tips can help make back-to-school time a little easier:

Back-to-School Tip #1: Be Enthusiastic

Almost every student approaches the start of a new school year with at least a bit of trepidation, and if your child has struggled with school in the past, he’s much more likely to be less than overjoyed about heading back into the classroom.

To allay your child’s fears, do your best to project an attitude of confidence and enthusiasm:

  • When he talks about problems he’s had, discuss the ways that you worked together to find solutions to those crises, and let him know that you’ll continue to do whatever you can to make his academic experience as enjoyable and productive as possible.
  • If your child expresses concern about dealing with certain teachers or students, remind him about the friends he’ll be able to spend time with and identify the teacher(s) with whom he has built a positive relationship.
  • If your child begins to dwell on the frustrations he’s had in the past, emphasize that this is a new year, a new beginning, and a new chance. And don’t ever stop telling him how proud you are of him, and how confident you are that he’ll be able to have his most successful year yet.

Back-to-School Tip #2: Be Realistic

Instilling a sense of confidence and enthusiasm in your child is an important part of preparing for a new school year, but be careful not to raise her expectations too high.

It may be tempting to comfort your child by promising her that none of the frustrations she experienced in the past will rear their ugly heads again this year, but when this doesn’t come to pass, you may be left with a child who is both disappointed in her circumstances and distrustful of the person (you) who pledged that she wouldn’t have to go through all of this again.

Be sure to temper your enthusiasm with healthy doses of realism:

  • If your child has struggled with grades in the past, don’t talk about this being a “straight A” year. Instead, help her identify small, measureable achievements that she can make, like studying for a certain amount of time every night or improving her attendance.
  • If she has had problems with certain students in the past, don’t pretend that those kids won’t bother her any more (because they probably will). Instead, tell her that you’ll bring these concerns to her teacher’s attention, and plan other ways in which she can either prevent conflicts or resolve them when they arise.
  • Encourage her to try new sports, clubs, or activities, but don’t lead her to believe that she has to take a “starring role” in order to have a meaningful experience. Talk about the value of participation, and the benefits of working and playing alongside her peers.

Back-to-School Tip #3: Be Prepared

For many students, the most intimidating aspect of a new school year is the fear of the unknown. What if my teacher is mean? What if I can’t make any friends? What happens if I can’t find my classroom, or if I don’t understand the lessons?

There’s no way you can dispel all of these worries, but you can ease quite a bit of your child’s back-to-school anxiety by removing as many unknowns as possible:

  • If your child will be attending a new school, arrange to take a quick tour of the building over the summer. Walking the halls and peering into the classrooms will familiarize your child with his new environment, and will take some of the fear out of the first day.
  • Set up a quick meeting with your child’s teacher. Most teachers spend at least a few days before school setting up their classrooms and preparing for the first day. Find out when your child’s new teacher has a few minutes to spare, and stop by for a quick introduction.
  • Throughout the summer, strategize various problem-solving situations with your child. For example, discuss the best ways to respond if another student is being a bully, if he doesn’t understand a lesson, or if he’s having a problem with his teacher. Talking through potential problems before they occur can equip your child with the confidence he needs to overcome many of the more common obstacles that may come his way.

Back-to-School Tip #4: Be Proactive

When it comes to their children’s experiences in school, many parents take a “wait and see” (or, in some cases, a “hold our breath and hope for the best”) approach. Some may even be intimidated by school personnel, or may feel that advocating on their child’s behalf will target them as being troublemakers.

In truth, being proactive doesn’t mean that you’re being pushy; rather, it means you are committed to your child’s welfare, and you know that it’s easier to solve a problem before it gets too big:

  • If your child has a learning disability that requires an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), be sure that the school is aware of this plan, has reviewed it, and is prepared to provide all required support.
  • If you suspect that your child may have an undiagnosed learning disability, request that she be tested by the school.
  • If your child has struggled with certain subjects, students, or situations in the past, talk to the new teacher(s) ahead of time to make them aware of your concerns and to ensure that if the problems recur they can be addressed before any significant damage has been done.

Back-to-School Tip #5: Be Consistent

When it comes to your child and school, don’t forget that routines are your ally. From consistent bedtimes to a well-established homework zone, developing positive habits can help ease anxiety and promote appropriate behaviors:

  • A few weeks before school starts, make sure that your child starts going to bed and getting up at the same times he will during the school year. This will help his body clock adjust, will increase the odds that he’ll be awake and aware during first period, and will lessen the likelihood that you’ll have to fight to get him out of bed and out the door.
  • Establish a “homework zone” in a quiet, clutter-free, and well-lit area of your house (away from the television). Schedule certain hours for study time, and provide supervision and assistance as needed.
  • Once you’ve established rules and procedures, enforce them. For example, if your child doesn’t have homework on a certain night, use the study time to review his lessons with him or read a book with him. If you expect your child to be in bed at a certain hour, don’t schedule (or permit) any late-night activities.

No set of rules, policies, or procedures can guarantee a successful school year for your child. But by embracing the ideas expressed above, you can increase the likelihood that both you and your child will be as prepared as possible for the challenges ahead.