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Back to School

Medically reviewed by: Kathryn Hoffses, PhD

After a summer of sleeping in or doing things on your time, the alarm bell announcing that first day of school can be a rude awakening. Whether you're an anxious new freshman or a confident senior, heading back to school signals a time of transition: new classes, new teachers, new schedules, and a new social scene.

Here are some ways to make the change from summer to school a little easier.

First-Day Nerves

The first day of school can be crazy. New kids wander around in circles. Lockers won't open. The school nurse needs your medical records. You forgot your gym shorts. Freshmen are running in all directions, looking for their homerooms.

How can you handle it? If you're headed to a new school, try to visit before classes begin. Explore any areas of particular interest, such as the gym, library, or science labs. Some schools offer maps. Get one before school starts — then keep it in your backpack until you're familiar with your new surroundings.

Your first day is also the time to bring in school supplies and paperwork. It can help to pack your backpack the night before school starts so you're not scrambling at the last minute looking for what you need. After packing basic supplies (such as notebooks, pens, pencils, etc.), find any school forms sent over the summer: vaccination (shot) records, permission slips, and class schedules.

Did you try on eight different outfits before deciding what to wear? Lots of people check out who's wearing what on the first day of school. The key is to wear what makes you feel good, whether it's a brand-new outfit or a comfy old sweater. If you plan to wear a new pair of shoes, try them out a few days beforehand to make sure your feet won't be hurting long before last period.

Each school has a different opening-day routine. Some start with homeroom or an assembly, but others may jump right into the first-period class. You'll meet your new teachers, and they'll probably give you an overview of the course syllabus, class rules, what the semester will be like, what supplies you'll need, and expectations of your performance and behavior. Some teachers will jump right into their first lesson, while others may have non-coursework activities planned. It all depends on the class and teacher.

Managing Emotions

New place = new emotions. Lots of people feel anxious, scared, or excited about school. Although students who are coming back as seniors may be happy they're in their final year and can't wait to visit with friends, most freshmen or new kids are likely to be tense or worried.

It's perfectly normal to feel nervous on the first day of school. Getting back to the school routine and adjusting to new workloads takes some getting used to after a long summer break. If you feel nervous or anxious, think back to some previous "first days." Everything probably settled down pretty quickly once you got into the routine.

Meeting new people or getting reacquainted with classmates can feel like a lot, especially if you're the shy or reserved type. Start small: If large groups make you nervous, try saying hello to one or two new people a day — the kid at the desk next to yours in homeroom is a good place to start. Or ask new people to sit with you in the cafeteria.

If you still feel uncomfortable after a few days, talk to the school counselor, a favorite teacher, or someone else you trust about how you're feeling and what you can do. But give yourself time — most problems adjusting to school are only temporary.

Lunchtime Strategies

What's everyone's favorite period? Lunch, what else? But with foods like tacos, pizza, or cheeseburgers staring you in the face when you're hungry, it can be hard to make healthy choices.

Here are some tricks to choosing foods that will keep you focused and active throughout the day — as well as help you grow and develop throughout the school year:

  • Get a copy of the menu. If your cafeteria provides a weekly or monthly menu, check it out. Knowing what's on the menu puts you in control: You can pick and choose which days you want to buy lunch and when you want to bring your own.
  • Head for the salad bar. If your school offers a salad bar, take advantage. If you'd rather pack, consider adding carrot sticks, a piece of fresh fruit, or pretzels to your lunch bag.
  • Think energy. Some foods are better choices than others for maintaining energy during the day. Choose low-fat proteins, like chicken, beans, or low-fat yogurt and add lots of fruits and veggies to your meal. They'll provide the vitamins and minerals you need and the energy to get through the day. Foods with a lot of simple carbohydrates (like sugary snacks, donuts, or french fries) may give you a quick rush of energy, but it's not sustainable. And that means you'll be left wanting more soon after you eat. The same is true of drinks filled with caffeine or sugar. You don't have to cut these out entirely — just enjoy them in moderation.
  • Stop for a snack. You can't concentrate or absorb new knowledge without a well-fed mind and body. So take along a healthy snack, like carrot sticks or trail mix, to manage hunger between classes. This will keep you going and help you avoid overeating later.

What if I Start to Feel Stressed?

School seemed simple when you were younger. Everyone told you where to go, what classes to take, and how to finish your homework. Now things are different — so many choices and things competing for your time. Stretch yourself too thin and you might feel stressed out.

Here are some ways to get control:

  • Plan ahead. Get a wall calendar or personal planner. Mark the dates of midterms, finals, and other tests. Note the due dates of term papers, essays, and other projects as they are assigned. List any other time commitments you have, like basketball practice or play rehearsals. When your calendar starts to fill, learn to say no to other activities until things calm down.
  • Stay ahead. Try not to fall behind. If you feel yourself lagging and start to feel frustrated, let your teachers and parents/caregivers know. It's better to get help early than to wait and think you can ace the final if you spend a few nights cramming. Almost everyone struggles with a particular subject or class. When you do, ask your teacher for extra help after class. Taking a few minutes to address the problem right away can save time later, and if your teacher knows that you're struggling with something, they're likely to be more understanding of the situation.
  • Listen up. Paying attention in class can pay off in the long run. Sure, it's often easier said than done, but actively listening and taking notes during lectures can make recalling information easier when it comes time to study and remember things.
  • Take notes. If you take notes and review them before class begins (or while studying for an exam), you can ask a teacher to go over anything you don't understand. It can also be helpful to go over notes with a friend after class — as long as you're confident your friend really grasps the material! Learning good note-taking skills in high school also helps put you ahead of the curve in college, when good lecture notes are key to studying and doing well.

What if I Miss a Day or Two...or More?

Nearly everyone gets sick at one time or another. If you're out sick, ask friends to take notes and pick up your homework.

If you're out for more than a day or two, do a little work every day if you feel up to it to keep from falling behind. If your teachers post assignments and notes online, ask if they will accept emailed homework. If not, have your parent drop your assignments off at school. Then be prepared to make up lab time and tests when you return.

If you don't feel well enough to keep up with your classes, that's OK. It's more important to take care of yourself. Again, a good relationship with teachers helps them be more understanding and then they can help you catch up when you return to school.

What Else Can Help?

Here are some more things that can help put you ahead in school:

  • The old saying "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is never more true than when you're going to school. Students are more alert and do better in class if they eat a good breakfast.
  • Get enough sleep. You need at least 8½ hours of sleep each night to feel rested. Sleep deprivation can lead students to fall asleep in class and can also make it hard to concentrate. It can be more productive to get the sleep you need than it is to stay up late cramming: Studies found that students who got enough sleep before a math test were nearly three times more likely to figure out the problem than those who stayed up all night. Try to go to bed the same time each night, and don’t let yourself sleep too late on the weekend!
  • Your parents/caregivers may want to help but don’t know exactly how. They might have checked your work and communicated with teachers for you when you were younger. Let them know how to support you while also letting you take the lead.
  • Do more at school and you'll have less to do at home. Take advantage of those times during the school day when you're not in class: Review notes, go to the library or computer lab, get a headstart on your homework, or research that big term paper. You'll be thankful later while you're at the mall or a concert and your classmates are stuck at home cramming!
  • One of the best ways to make friends and learn your way around is by joining school clubs, sports teams, and activities. Even if you can't kick a 30-yard field goal or sing a solo, get involved in other ways. Go to a school play, help with a bake sale, or cheer on friends at a swim meet — it'll help you feel like a part of things.

School is a time to make friends and try new things. But it's also a place to learn skills like organization and decision-making that will come in handy for the rest of your life.

Medically reviewed by: Kathryn Hoffses, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2022