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Reading, writing and relationships: Tips for parents on the social aspects of back to school

August 24, 2011 By Stacy Forster

The pencils and notebooks have been purchased and the new shoes have been broken in, but there are other preparations parents can be making to help children get ready for the social and emotional aspects of going back to school.

Amy Bellmore, assistant professor of educational psychology, is an expert on peer relationships and has some advice for parents as children get ready to start a new school year.

Inside UW–Madison: What would you tell parents about what their children might be feeling as the start of the school year approaches?

Amy Bellmore: They’re probably worried about new teachers they might have or, if they’re high school students, new classes they might have. They’re also probably worried about their friends — making new friends if they’re moving into a new school or from elementary to middle school, or they might have concerns about popularity and feeling like they need to fit in.

IUW: How easy is it to tell what kinds of anxiety children are having?

AB: On average, kids probably don’t express their concerns to their parents. Parents should be really proactive in asking their children what are their concerns. Ask specific questions about how their kids are feeling about going back to school, their classes, teachers and friends.

IUW: So parents should try to be comprehensive?

AB: Cover all areas and do it consistently, so you’re then building a body of knowledge. If you’re asking every day about a certain area, you can follow up on what your child’s concern was from an earlier day. The point is that the kids aren’t necessarily going to be forthcoming with important information.

IUW: Are there other steps parents can take to make the transition easier or contacts they should be making?

AB: I would advise every parent to create a contact in the school. Whether that’s a current teacher, or it could be a former teacher you and your child were close to. It could also be a school counselor. For sure, having another point person or source of information in the school is really important.

IUW: What should parents do during the first week or first month to follow up on the pre-school conversations they were having?

AB: One thing would be making sure that the child feels that they have an adult they can go to for support in the school. Two things that are really important for kids’ academic success in school are sense of belonging in the school and a sense that they’re supported in the school by a teacher, counselor or at the highest level, by the principal. Also, during the course of the school year, parents can discuss different strategies a child can use to deal with problems or challenges that come up. If the problem has to do with their friends and feeling left out or feeling like they’re losing a friendship, a parent could discuss things their child could do to feel better or solve the problem in some way. Kids can’t think of as many options as adults can, and the idea is to have parents give kids a bunch of options, and then a child can choose what might work best in a given situation.

Early in the school year, parents should also encourage their kids to get involved in school to get that sense of belonging. It’s really important because kids who are involved on the academic end of things or in extracurricular activities like sports and clubs perform better in school. That seems obvious, but in middle and high school when the schools are larger, it’s easier for kids to disappear, and having some connection is really beneficial.

IUW: What if your child is being threatened or made uncomfortable by a bully? What can parents do?

AB: Finding out about it is the first step. Kids will not want to share that information with their parents. They often don’t tell anybody. Ensuring you can find out about it is the first step and then following up by coming up with strategies, whether it’s avoiding a certain part of school if they can, making sure they’re not alone on the schoolyard where a teacher cannot supervise them, or dealing with it when it occurs. For example, if someone is calling them a name, parents can give them a strategy like walking away.

For more information and tips for parents of school-age youth, Bellmore suggests visiting