UW News

August 16, 2012

Back to school tips for parents from UW psychologists

News and Information

When kids go back to school in a few weeks, it can be a mixed bag of challenges including adjusting to school routines and worries over academics, bullies and fitting in with other peers. Psychologists from the University of Washington offer advice to parents on how to help their elementary- through high school-aged kids get the new school year off to a good start.

Ease into school routines

Parents, especially those with younger children, can help their kids prepare for school by getting them on sleep and meal schedules that are in sync with school days.

“It’s hard to get kids back into routines. They can get really tired and emotional diving right back into school,” said Liliana Lengua, UW psychology professor. As kids adjust to the new schedule, they can come home irritable, crying and “falling apart,” she said.

Another benefit of being rested: it improves memory, mood and motivation – all key elements for learning, said Clayton Cook, UW assistant professor of educational psychology.

Academic refreshers

Short, school-like assignments can help offset the summer slide phenomenon, where kids regress in academic performance.

“Often we send kids back to school cold turkey,” Cook said. “It behooves families to do refreshers over the summer. Nothing to overwhelm kids, but something like doing a math problem or reading a bit before going out for a fun summer activity.”

Get to the root of back-to-school jitters

Most elementary school-aged children look forward to the first day back, but for those who are anxious, figuring out why can help. If children are worried about seeing friends again, arrange some get-togethers with friends before school starts. If the child fears having a new teacher or being in a new classroom, schedule a classroom visit before the school year.

“Sometimes it’s the unfamiliarity or unknown that worries kids,” said Lengua, who directs the UW Center for Child and Family Well-Being.

Look out for avoidance behaviors, like crying, clinging or complaining of feeling sick to their stomach and asking to stay home.

“It’s hard to pry a child off and walk away,” Lengua said. But often the best thing parents can do is give a quick goodbye with strong assurances to their child that he or she will be fine at school.


Summer might have been a reprieve for children who have been bullied at school. Cook said that bullying tends to decrease in schools where adults are responsive. Parents should help their children identify trusted adults at school who can help, including teachers, administrators, janitors, counselors or other staff.

Cyberbullying usually happens when kids are at home. To counter this, James Mazza, a UW educational psychology professor, said parents should “tell their child to let them know if an email or something on Facebook is hurtful and feels mean.”

Pressure to fit in

Parents of adolescents, especially those entering high school, might see some behavior changes as children try to fit in with upperclassmates and not look lost, said Mazza, who is also a school psychologist working with middle and high school students.

Keep having conversations with adolescents about their values and who they are.  Make time for family activities like playing basketball or riding bikes.

“Adolescence is a time when kids are trying to figure out who they are without their parents. Let them explore different things. If they get too far out of their typical personality, parents should check in,” Mazza said.

Cell phones, computers

Before the school year begins is also a good time to remind kids of the lasting repercussions of sharing photos electronically. “Once they’re out there, you can’t take them back, kids need to think hard before they send impulsive photos of someone doing something silly or provocative,” Mazza said.

Similarly, remind teens that email is not private and to think twice before firing off disgruntled emails about teachers from the school library computers.


For more information, contact Lengua at 206-543-5655 or liliana@uw.edu, Cook at 206-616-6371 or cook2142@uw.edu, or Mazza at 206-616-6373 or mazza@uw.edu.