Back-to-School Jitters: 5 Ways to Ease Worries

The thought of sending your little one off to school may be causing you some anxiety, but chances are, it’s affecting your kid too. Here are five ways to help calm your child's nerves -- and in turn, ensure your peace of mind as well.       

1. Talk to your child about his worries.

There’s nothing scarier than the great unknown. According to Dr. Dean Leav, a psychologist in Southern California, “many kids are worried about whether they’ll ‘fit in’ and develop their social network,” he says. To quell first-time jitters, Leav recommends having a dialogue with your child about his thoughts and feelings related to school. You can talk about the potential challenges your child may encounter, emotionally preparing him, says Leav. Explain that many kids have the same worries but are surprised by how friendly their classmates are. Remind him that all his fellow students will be new to the situation too and in need of making friends.

2. Explain how school works.

If your child is going to school for the first time, contact the school administrator and ask for a daily rundown of activities that you can go over with your kid. Find out about bathroom, nap and snack time policies as well so you can explain those to your little one. Then go over her day: Tell your child that the day usually begins by putting her belongings in her cubby and getting ready for attendance, or some other gathering ritual. Explain that there will be recess, lunchtime, more class work or playtime, and then dismissal. Let your child know that her teacher will help her get on the correct bus and that you’ll be there waiting at the bus stop.

3. Do a trial run.

“Doing a full walk-through, where the child pretends it’s the first day of school and actually gets dressed and goes to school can be very helpful,” says Leav. During this time, Leav says it’s especially important to explore the child’s thoughts and feelings. In addition, take advantage of any open houses that the school may have. While at the school, show him where you will pick him up and drop him off, and where the bathroom is. If you can’t get into the school before the first day, play on the playground and look in the windows so your child knows what to expect.

4. Arrange for meetups.

Ask friends, family and neighbors if they know any families with children the same age as yours that will be starting school at the same time. Arrange for a playdate, where you can safely accompany your child, so she can go to school knowing there will be at least one familiar face.

5. Give it some time.

During those first few days of school, your child might be especially clingy and ask you to come to school with him. Kids need extra support during this big, new transition, and it’s OK to go with them, says Leav. “For little ones, you should accompany them the first few times if they ask you to. Meet their teacher and new classmates with them. The goal is to show them that the new school environment is safe enough to explore independently. This will help them feel comfortable in their new environment.

Sunday Supper…or Any Other Time

For Nancy Richmond, Sunday dinners are something to treasure. While her family sits down to eat together in the dining room practically every night (with candles and tablecloths no less), these meals are special. “My husband cooks the same kind of wonderful meals he makes all week long, but it’s different. We’re all more relaxed,” says Richmond. “Sunday night is the evening we’re most likely to invite company and the night my kids invite their friends.”

Mealtime traditions -- whether it’s Sunday supper, Saturday morning bagels or Tuesday night pizza -- are more than just good food and fun times. They are the glue that holds families together. “These traditions are the things that make us feel we belong somewhere and that we’re special -- that our family is different from other families,” says Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D., director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a researcher in the way routines knit families together.

It isn’t easy to pull off a family dinner every night of the week, which is why designating one day for a special meal is so important. “The average meal gets eaten in anywhere from 18 to 20 minutes,” says Fiese. “The average kid watches four to six hours of TV a day. There’s room in there somewhere. Just turn off cell phones, computers and the TV and sit down together.”

Here’s how to keep everyone at the table…and happy to be there:

Tweak your tradition… Sooner or later, most kids will groan and snort at the idea of spending any more time at the table than they have to. “As kids grow up, expect plenty of eye-rolling but don’t give up,” says Fiese. “Teens may act like they want you to drop the routines entirely, but they don’t.” Ask if they’d like to try a little cooking instead of always getting stuck with the dishes, for example. For Richmond, allowing kids to invite friends has made a huge difference: “Sometimes we get 10 kids here -- there’s always something we can fix in the kitchen to feed them.”

…Or borrow someone else’s For anyone who grew up in a traditional Italian home, the scent of slow-simmering sauce (known as gravy, to some) is a cherished memory. Many Southerners feel the same way about chicken-after-church dinners. If you love your Sunday dinner tradition, but are tired of your traditional Sunday food, take a page from someone else’s cookbook. Vary the menu on your typical Sunday meals and see what happens.

Make It Extra Special
Tere Estorino and her 3-year-old son, Max, live seven houses away from her parents, so they share many meals together. But her favorite occasion is the monthly brunch her parents host, when her siblings and their kids all converge for an hours-long Sunday brunch -- Cuban style. “I love that my son is getting to know his aunts, uncles and cousins this way. I know it’s good for Max, but it’s also good for me,” says the 31-year-old Miami mom. “I so look forward to a Sunday spent talking and laughing with my family. I need that connection, too.”

Ready, Set, Napkins!

If your child still brings his plate to his chin to shovel rice into his mouth or wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, don’t despair! It’s never too late to teach him good table manners. The trick is to help him see why it’s important -- beyond just to placate you.

“I tell kids that it’s not about being fancy but about showing respect for yourself and others, and frankly, to keep you from making embarrassing mistakes,” says Florida-based protocol coach Patricia Rossi. “For example, if you’re sawing bread with your knife, you might shake the table and spill someone’s water glass. That’s why we break off little bites of bread instead.”

If you keep it light, your lessons will go down a lot easier. Use these games and activities to make learning good table manners fun:

Craft a model place setting Cut a large rectangular place mat out of construction paper or poster board. Show your children the proper placement of each item in a place setting -- fork next to napkin to the left of the plate, knife and spoon to the right, drink above -- and have them draw the outlines on their placemat. Have them draw the food, too, if they want. Laminate the paper and let the kids use it as a guide until they master the art of setting the table.

Make up rhymes and catchy phrases Kids love alliteration, repetition and rhyme, so try applying these to common etiquette rules. You might say: “Don’t chat while you chew!” “Food to mouth, not mouth to food,” “Sit up straight, and you’ll look great!” Feel free to get silly: “Don’t be a dork -- use a fork!” Challenge kids to come up with their own phrases, or prompt them with suggestions such as: How ’bout one for not eating with your fingers?

Teach tricks Etiquette experts use special techniques to help kids remember the rules of fine dining. Peggy Newfield, president of the Atlanta-based American School of Protocol, tells kids to touch their pointer fingers to their thumbs and hold the other three fingers straight to form a small “b” with the left hand and a small “d” with the right. When you put them on your lap, it reminds you to put your bread to your left and your drink to your upper right.

Stage a “fancy” dinner party Dust off the china, dig out Grandma’s candlesticks and have the kids set the table with the works: tablecloth, cloth napkins, real glasses, salad plates, forks, soup bowls and spoons. Need a refresher course on table setting? Go to eHow and search for “set a formal table.”

Demonstrate do’s and don’ts Nothing’s funnier to kids than seeing grown-ups acting goofy: “Do we slurp soup loudly like this? (exaggerate rude slurping noise) “Or do we sip quietly from the side of the spoon?” “Do we get up and do a silly dance?” (act it out) “Or do we stay seated until everyone is finished?”

Ask kids to show you the wrong way to act at the table, followed by the right way, including how to sit (bottom squarely on the chair, straight posture), how to hold silverware (fork like a pencil in left hand), how to chew (thoroughly and with mouth closed) and anything else that comes to mind. The sillier you can make the dining don’ts, the more fun and memorable the guidelines will be.

Whatever else you do, be sure to model proper dining behavior yourself! Your children will watch -- and learn. Bon appétit!

Shape up With Family-friendly Fitness

The mere mention of starting a family-wide fitness routine may send everyone running for cover. But incorporating more physical activity into your family life doesn’t have to be a painful and serious undertaking. Here are three family-friendly fitness moves to get fit and have fun -- together.

Get Hooping
Remember Hula-Hoops? As a kid, you’d twirl those giant plastic rings on your waist, wrists and ankles until you just couldn’t do it anymore. Well, they’ve resurfaced as a hot exercise trend, with hooping classes springing up in gyms across the country. Hooping offers a great workout: It strengthens your core muscles, boosts your balance, and according to the Mayo Clinic, offers a great aerobic workout when you keep it up for 10 minutes.

You don’t even have to take a class to reap the benefits. Numerous DVDs provide a routine (and a soundtrack). You can also create your own. Just buy everyone a hoop (each hoop should reach from the floor to between the user’s waist and chest, according to the American Council of Exercise), crank up your favorite dance music, and have a group twirl-a-thon in the basement or family room. You’ll all have such a blast you won’t even realize you’re exercising.

Hit the Floor
You used to go to dance clubs, but that fell by the wayside when you had a family. Pick it back up by holding regular dance parties at home. Teens may be too embarrassed to join in, but younger kids will love it. Like hooping, vigorous dancing (e.g., salsa, hip-hop or belly dancing) gives you an aerobic workout -- about as much as jogging or cycling. It also improves balance, posture, endurance and flexibility. Step it up a notch and try Zumba, a Brazilian dance-fitness program taught in gyms and dance studios. DVDs and video games can also teach you the moves at home. Note: Zumba’s got some pretty sexy steps, so you may want to make this a girls-only activity!

Go Ahead and Jump
Prizefighters do it to build strength; kids do it to have fun. That combo makes jumping rope an ideal family fitness activity. Jumping rope for 10 minutes offers the same cardio benefit as jogging an eight-minute mile. It also builds bone-mineral density, muscle endurance and coordination. Ropes cost less than $20; buy at least one for every two family members so you can pair off for team competitions. There’s nothing like a little family-friendly fitness rivalry to keep you motivated!

Photo: iStockphoto.com/pixdeluxe

Go Wild…and Bring the Kids

Why on earth would any parent go camping with their kids? Between the packing, the hauling and the dirt, it’s enough to send you running to the Holiday Inn. But it’s these very same rustic realities that make a weekend or even a week in the woods the perfect glue for a great family bonding experience.

“Unlike other types of vacations, you aren’t led around, signs don’t tell you what to do or where to go, there aren’t lines to wait on,” says Rick McClintock, executive director for the National Association for Therapeutic Wilderness Camping. “As a family, you have to depend on each other to create the activities and the structure for the day and to provide the necessities you all need for living.”

Camping isn’t just about working together as a family, of course. It’s about having a blast in a world where the regular rules don’t always apply. Things that may be taboo back at home -- starting campfires, skinny-dipping in the moonlight or sliding in the mud -- may be perfectly OK in the woods. “My daughter Zoe and I fight so much less when we’re camping, because I’m no longer “the enforcer” that I am at home. She’s more relaxed, I’m more relaxed, and we can both enjoy bending the rules together,” says Jamie Scurletis, 49, of Rumson, N.J. Sound interesting? Here are some tips to get you started:

Cut  your teeth with car camping Hiking into the woods with kids and setting up a backcountry camp is a recipe for stress if you’ve never done it before. Find a campground that allows you to park your car right next to the spot where you’ll pitch your tent. That means your supplies -- and your quick escape -- are seconds away.

Start short and stay close Think in terms of two nights away and two hours from home. There’s less at stake and less to pack. Save big, long trips for when you’re more confident campers.

Choose a campsite with care Campgrounds range from pastoral and peaceful to downright dreadful. Ask friends and family who camp what campgrounds and campsites they suggest. You can also find campground reviews online.

Borrow what you can There’s no sense in investing big bucks in all the gear only to find out camping isn’t for you. Ask friends or relatives if you can borrow the basic stuff. Check out The Coleman Company for a laundry list of basics (as well as other good beginner camping tips).

Do your homework Find out ahead of time what facilities your campground does and doesn’t have. It’s no fun showing up, for example, and finding out that everyone else has bikes because the woods are laced with great backcountry carriage roads. Do some research about local attractions, such as hiking trails and white-water rafting, as well as rainy-day bailouts like movie theaters and bowling alleys.

Stage a backyard dress rehearsal A dry run just a handful of yards from the house can help everyone get comfortable with the idea of camping. It’ll also give you a chance to get acquainted with the tent and other equipment. Now’s the time to discover that the air mattress your neighbor loaned you is flat as a pancake a mere 10 minutes after you blow it up.

Even with careful planning, camping can present real challenges: drenching rains, mosquito swarms or fishhooks in the hand can test even the heartiest camping clans. “There are definitely times that you’ll be sitting under a tarp playing cards as the rain pours down, and thinking, ‘wow, this really stinks,’” says McClintock. “But when you think about it, when’s the last time you and the kids actually played cards together?”