Back-to-School Self-Care and Wellness

Keys to a Successful Back-to-School Transition include establishing routines, taking care of mental and physical health, and setting realistic goals as a family.

two students sitting at an outdoor table laughing together

Parents and students can find ways to manage back-to-school stress

As summer comes to a close and school buildings begin breathing back to life, families are gearing up for the exciting yet sometimes daunting back-to-school season. Going back to school brings about a whirlwind of emotions, both for parents and kids.

We spoke with Logan Winkelman, PhD, LPC-S, NCC, about the stressors that come with the season and how parents and students can manage them. Winkelman is Program Director and Assistant Professor of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Department of the TTUHSC School of Health Professions.

Facing the Back-to-School Transition

The transition from a relaxed summer break to a structured school routine can be anxiety provoking for both parents and children. The carefree days of summer with more sun and fun gradually give way to increased responsibilities and tasks.

The shift in daylight hours alone can affect our moods, contributing to feelings of stress.

“I always say in counseling that some of the most stressful times in our lives are during times of transition,” Winkelman says. “And going back to school is no different. It is a transition.”

Exercise, Eat Well, Sleep, Repeat

Logan Winkelman, PhD, LPC-S, NCC

Logan Winkelman, Ph.D., LPC-S, NCC

Parents and students can make the back-to-school transition smoother by maintaining a healthy sleep cycle in the weeks leading up to school. By maintaining regular sleep routines, the body can better adapt to the new schedule, reducing the shock of the first days back to school.

“Start trying to go to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every day,” Winkelman recommends. “That’ll help that transition, so you don’t get to the first day of school with sleep routines out of whack.”

In addition to healthy sleep, we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of proper nutrition and staying physically active. Encouraging healthy eating habits and incorporating physical activities can set the stage for a successful school year. Parents can lead by example, promoting these healthier habits for the whole family.

“It doesn't have to be super rigid. If all you can do some days is go on a 10-minute walk, that's great,” Winkelman says. “It's about the habit of committing to physical activity every day.”

RELAX! (For Real!)

With the school year approaching, it’s never too early to develop healthy relaxation techniques. (It’s never too late, either.) It’s important to understand our individual coping strategies for dealing with stress.

“Sometimes, and usually unconsciously, we develop maladaptive coping strategies for stress,” Winkelman explains. “We start grinding our teeth, or we start holding our tension in our shoulders, or we'll start getting stomach aches and not know why.”

Winkelman recommends trying different relaxation techniques to manage stress effectively, such as deep breathing exercises, to find what works best for you. These simple practices can help children and parents alike reduce anxiety and stay centered during the back-to-school hustle.

For many of us, even the idea of scheduling relaxation can add a sense of stress. That’s why Winkelman encourages students and parents to embrace breaks and down time. This can become especially important as the school-year grind sets in.

“Just as we would schedule any task that we have to do, make one of those tasks a 20-minute break, or an hour break, or maybe something to do on the weekend,” she says. “That self-care is just as important as everything else that you have to do.”

It’s also important to reach out for support whenever you need it, especially when feeling overwhelmed.

“I think there's a misconception that to seek counseling services, something has to be wrong with us,” Winkelman says. “That's not necessarily true. You don't have to have a mental health diagnosis in order to reap the benefits of seeking counseling.”

Setting Goals and Keeping Them Real

As the school year approaches, set realistic goals and priorities to prevent burnout and becoming overwhelmed by the change of schedule. This is easier for some than others, for a variety of reasons.

“Setting goals is a skill,” Winkelman says. “If you've never learned how to set goals and stick to them and plan out your day, you can't assume that you’re just going to do it really well.”

Like any skill, setting realistic, achievable goals takes practice. And practice comes with trial and error.
Parents can work with their children to plan out a feasible schedule, incorporating achievable tasks and manageable steps. By breaking down large goals into smaller, more manageable parts, children can experience a sense of accomplishment and motivation.

“If you're the parent who has the planner and dry erase board, involve your kids with it so they learn that skill,” she says.

Try setting aside one night a week, where everyone in the household discusses upcoming activities and adds them to the family calendar. Not only will getting everyone on the same page prevent missed tasks or time commitments, it’s an opportunity to teach children valuable skills in time management and planning. Encourage children to take an active role in setting their academic and personal goals to foster their sense of ownership and responsibility.

Self-Care for Parents During the Back-to-School Hustle

Amid the frenzy of getting the kids ready for the coming school year, it’s crucial for parents to remember that their wellbeing matters, too. Having a self-care plan is a great way parents can ensure their sanity along with their children’s punctuality. Part of this self-care should include time and space for simple self-reflection.    

“If we constantly have an outward focus, then we're virtually on autopilot for everything else,” Winkelman says. “If we're wanting any change to happen, it's going to be really hard because we're not looking inward.”

While time is typically a scarce resource for parents, self-reflection doesn't have to be time-consuming. Even a few minutes of introspection before bed or upon waking in the morning will make a significant difference. This is an important time when parents can not only be aware of their feelings, but validate them as well.

“So often, we feel guilty for not having it all together, missing an activity, showing up late, or all the things that we deal with as adults,” Winkelman says. “But, it's OK to feel stress. It's OK to feel like you don't know what you're doing. It's OK to feel overwhelmed and to allow yourself to feel those emotions.”

Navigating the educational journey as a united front can make this academic year a harmonious and fulfilling experience for all. By recognizing and validating emotions, setting achievable targets and prioritizing health, parents and children can embark on a successful back-to-school transition.

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