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updated: 8/19/2013 6:20 PM

Relieving back-to-school stress

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By Lisa Jones Townsel

Fingernail biting, sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate? It must be time to return to school, a ritual that can stress out even the coolest students and their parents.

Virtually any task can set this stress-o-meter soaring: shopping for clothing and school supplies, making changes to bedtime hours, even worrying about new teachers, new classes and new friends.

Linda D'Oyley of Bartlett usually has a good handle on the back to-school regimen that works for her sixth-grade daughter. She eases in academic bridge work throughout the summer, makes gradual shifts in her daughter's bedtime hours in the weeks leading up to the first day of school and she thinks of a plan of action months before school. Yet, finding clothes that "do not violate" her school's dress code still triggers anxiety.

"I am already stressing about it," D'Oyley admits.

She is not alone. Many parents find the back-to-school transition to be a difficult one. Yet local educators say it is likely to go more smoothly if parents start the process early, work in concert with their children and learn when to let go.

Ada Wainwright, a psychology professor at the College of DuPage, notes that changes for students moving from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school can be dramatic. "They're coming from a smaller community and moving to a bigger one," she explains. "Friendships change and their peer role is changing."

She advises adults to be good listeners. "Ask kids questions without judgment and hear what they say," she says. "Give them structure and advice, but also allow them to make decisions for themselves."

Linda Pincham, an associate professor of secondary education at Roosevelt University, agrees. She says the back-to-school rush can be very stressful for students and maybe even more so for those transitioning to middle school.

One of the biggest worries at this juncture is that students will have difficulty juggling new classes and finding time to visit their lockers. Yet, Pincham and others say parents can help.

"If the school is open during the summer, take the kid over to the school and show them their classrooms," she insists. "Walk them through the classes; get a lock and have them open and lock the lock. That will take away some of the stress."

Giving students their own calendar can help, too. "A lot of kids are unorganized, and it does get to be overwhelming," Pincham adds. "Parents can check the calendar nightly and make a checklist for the next day."

Parents intuitively reintroduce stricter bedtime hours before the school year begins, but few may know the true benefit. "A lot of studies say that kids at this age, going into puberty, need 9 hours of sleep and that's a challenge," says Pincham, a former middle school principal. "Many kids will protest" about such guidelines, she says, but having a good night's sleep is key to fending off stress.

Making sure that bedtime spaces are completely dark and homework areas are distraction-free also help to relieve stress. Even the what-to-wear question can be put to rest if parents insist that children make clothing selections at night.

While support is needed, don't go overboard. If Little Johnnie forgets his lunch money or homework, let him face the consequence. "Sometimes children have to learn the hard way," she suggests.

Besides, such efforts can backfire. So "before you bring cute little things to your child's class unexpectedly" Pincham says discuss it with your child to avoid a meltdown.

Area educators say involve children in this transition, no matter the size of the task, so that they feel invested in the process.

That's what Jane Yates of Hoffman Estates does with her two daughters, who are in the fourth and 11th grades.

One bonding time they share is shopping for school supplies. But the girls only revel in one part of the experience. "When it comes to getting school supplies, they don't really look forward to it -- I do," Yates says. "They prefer the clothing shopping, when they can pick their own stuff."

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