The One Thing I Do Every Year Before School Starts To Help My Anxious Child
Will it work for you? Maybe. Is it fun AF? Yes!
Weeks before the new school year even begins, parents get bombarded with back-to-school advertising — so much so that it starts to feel like summer is over by mid-July. Anxiety over all of the supplies we need and whether or not our kids are going to be OK this year can, quite honestly, be crushing. By the time my son hit third grade, I'd had enough. So, I came up with a plan to try something a little different: a summer trip that backs right up to the start of school.
I will be the first to say that my back-to-school plan might not work for your family. In fact, for some kids, it could induce anxiety. Kids who struggle with sleeping away from their own beds or who need the comfort of the day-to-day routine may find this plan too disruptive to implement right before school starts. But in my family, distraction works wonders to shake us out of our end-of-summer dread and keep us in the moment.
I also happen to live somewhere where the first day of school is just after Labor Day, so we don't go back to school until September. This means we take trips in late August, which also has the perk of being shoulder season in many places. Hotels are a little cheaper, airfare is often lower, and crowds start thinning out. And if you work with a lot of other parents, you'll find that you will not overlap with their vacations as much if you delay your big trip to later in the summer.
The heart of the "plan," though, is not about cutting costs or avoiding crowds. It's about making memories and having fun. It's also become a bit of a coping tool in an unexpected way: Our family looks forward to the end of summer because we have something exciting to look forward to. Often, we'll pick up a few cool back-to-school supplies on the trip, like a souvenir pencil case or pens. This helps our son remember his trip throughout the school year, too, giving him a reference point to connect to on the toughest days. He can pick out a few items of clothing, helping curb the rigamarole of back-to-school shopping.
(For what it's worth, I use Stitch Fix Kids for most of my BTS clothing shopping. I schedule it to arrive a week or two before the start day, and my son can try things on at his own pace. He generally loathes clothing shopping, and I've found the prices are very affordable for kids' clothes.)
One summer, we took a trip to Ireland, where it turns out August is Heritage Month and tons of local sites were free to visit. He picked out some Irish athletic gear and got notebooks with the Irish language describing the subjects from the park gift shop. Another summer, the one right before middle school started, my son and I took a trip together across the country on an Amtrak. We even got a little sleeping car. This year, we plan on doing more of a staycation in a nearby town, where we'll be able to stay in a hotel with a waterpark and stay up late watching Nailed It for three days.
The sweet spot is returning from the trip two to three days before school starts. If you are changing time zones, aim for three. If it's more of a local trip, two is enough. A timeframe like this gives you one day to recoup with enough time to figure out if you need to buy anything else last minute. It also allows for a last day/evening to do something easy and meaningful, like having dinner together and recalling some memories from the trip. I sometimes make a photo book we can look through as the school year progresses.
I'm big on last hurrahs. About two years ago, I implemented a vacation policy in our household. If we go on a big trip we've been planning for a long time, instead of spending the last night somewhere convenient (like at the airport), we always stay somewhere special. Doing so makes us feel like we're still on vacation (we are) and sets the tone to have a beautiful last night in the place you've spent so much effort to get to. We've splurged for castles or glamp-grounds to make that final night something we'll never forget.
My son generally enjoys school and has been lucky with many wonderful teachers over the years. Our district offers a lot of social and emotional support for struggling students. But even in the best of schools, the start of school and the unknown of the year ahead can be rough. Having an end-of-summer hurrah helps celebrate the milestone while making it as positive as possible — for him and for me.