Surviving the Transition From Summer to School

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If you’re one of those families doing a happy dance at the prospect of school starting, good for you. (I’m told these families exist?) But for kids and parents alike, the transition out of summer mode and into school mode can be anxiety-provoking and slightly bumpy — especially this year, with the pandemic again (and still) in full force and many kids going back to in-person school after a very long absence. Here are some tips the whole family can use to help make the transition a smooth one. Or smoother, anyway.

1) Gradually reset bedtimes and wake up times.

OK, so if your family is anything like mine, the daily rhythms of summer are way different than those during the rest of the year. We’re all up later at night thanks to late dinners, socializing with friends, romping up and down the street playing with the neighborhood pets, enjoying ice cream treats on the front porch… and we’re also having lazier, slower mornings. Acclimating back to a school year schedule has to be done gently. So start the process as early as possible (like, um… now) so you can make the shift gradually. Each night, get everyone to bed ten minutes earlier and up ten minutes earlier in the mornings. Slow and steady, nothing drastic. To help our family with this I’m trying to shift dinner time a little earlier, too.
Oh also, a new rule in the run-up to school: everyone has to get dressed each day. In the morning.

2) Bring summer hobbies into the school year.

The shift into school mode can be a lot less horrifying for kids — and adults — if beloved elements of summer can be brought along. So talk with your kids about which favorite parts of summer you can bring with you into fall. My kids have loved hiking this summer, and that can absolutely continue once school begins; we’re already talking about local hikes we can do on weekends. They’ve also been into recording music with Garage Band, playing tennis, launching these foam airplanes all around town and then throwing basketballs at them when they get stuck in trees, and making this breakfast burrito hack from TikTok. These are all things that can easily come with us into the school year. Think about what your kids have gotten into over the summer, and talk about ways you can keep those things in the mix. (Also, brainstorm activities you can add to the rotation once it’s not so flippin hot out. My urban kids are very excited about the prospect of APPLE-PICKING.)

3) Set up a kickass workspace.

Ditch last year’s worksheets and all the shards of math scrap paper still floating around and help your kids set up a workspace/ homework desk they’re excited about. What will inspire them to make the space their own? It doesn’t have to be fancy; maybe it’s a small purchase like a cool lamp or a wall print or set of erasers in the shape of Donald Trump’s hair. Maybe there’s a DIY desk organizer they’re excited to make. Tap into their desires. Kids get excited about the strangest things. Inspo: Elle’s got a home desk makeover vid, Meg made a cuuuuute kid office and Brooke shares great organization tips and DIYs including a Lazy Susan, and when has a Lazy Susan ever disappointed?

4) Re-connect with your school peeps.

It’s nice to be reminded that “school life” contains people we actually like and enjoy seeing. (Hopefully?) Coordinate a picnic or BBQ or set up some playdates or FaceTimes with favorites from school. And if you have the option to attend any orientation type things — virtually or otherwise — go to them. Yep, it can seem like a bummer to make time for those events when you’re trying to enjoy the last gasps of summer. But showing up for that stuff is usually really helpful in reducing anxiety, getting some questions answered, and just generally making the existential dread less acute.

5) Connect with school itself.

Older kids might relieve some jitters by starting an assigned book early. With younger kids, (re)familiarizing them with their teachers goes a long way in giving them a frame of reference and making a connection. If there isn’t an opportunity to meet IRL, grab a yearbook and talk about who’s who. Take a walk over to the school or bus stop and poke around. Reacquaint them (and yourselves) with some of the daily rhythms.

6) Get really effing jazzed up about lunches.

Do your kids, like mine, get unreasonably yet adorably excited dreaming up what kinds of items can go into their lunchboxes? Have them brainstorm. Make a shopping list. Get them involved in shopping and prep, if you can. And buy stuff that will make you excited about packing their lunches (at least in the short run) since that slog is real. Find inspo here: Sandwich alternatives, non-sandwich sandwiches, tips for parents for simplifying the lunch-packing process and lunchbox must-haves.

7) Swap out the summery-est pieces of summer gear.

This sounds weird, but especially if you have younger kids, swap out some of the clothes in their wardrobe; this will help with the cray come busy weekday mornings. I live in L.A. where fall is just as warm (or warmer) than summer, so my kids still need access to plenty of shorts, t-shirts and sandals. BUT will I quietly transition a few items out of their dressers and pack them away? I will. Otherwise, there’s a strong chance my son will try to wear a Spidey swim top to school at some point, and equally strong chance my daughter will attempt Adidas flip flops and ripped denim cutoff shorts. I figure if the clothes aren’t right in front of them, there’s no temptation to wear them… and that means more peaceful mornings.

8) Lessons in disguise.

Get your kids’ brains fired up and (secretly) back into learning mode with activities like cooking (slicing pizza is the perfect hands-on lesson in fractions), puzzles, or house projects that involve measuring furniture or spaces. My 7-year-old is into graphic novels and has been working on an epic one about a brother-sister pair who knock their parents unconscious and go off to a monster cave and fight a gnarly creature from inside its mouth. Slightly alarming? Maybe! Point is, it feels like play to him, but it’s creative, and he’s practicing his writing and handwriting after a couple months off.

9) Start (or restart) family routines and rituals.

If during the school year you plan to make a ritual of having breakfast or dinner together as a family, start that up now. Have kids create their own “morning routine card”; they can zhuzh it up and even laminate it. Decide with your kids what should generally get done the night before and what gets done the morning of: lunch, backpack, choosing clothing, etc.

10) Figure out where gear lives.

Before school starts, establish a place for backpacks, shoes, musical instruments and all that other hoopla that comes with kids’ comings and goings from school. Also figure out where screens (iPads, phones) live; ideally it’s outside bedrooms.

11) Dip a toe into meal planning.

You don’t have to do the whole enchilada here; a little bit goes a long way. Bag up smoothie ingredients or make batches of stuff to store in the freezer — muffins or mini breakfast quesadillas — that can be grab-n-go breakfasts.

12) Acknowledge that this transition is hard.

It just is. Shifting gears from summer back into school can bring up big feelings. Add a pandemic surge to that and you’ve got even more apprehension, and many, many kids are going to be feeling it. So whatever they’ve got on their minds, make space for it. This morning, three days before the start of second grade, my son said to me “I’m scared.” My instinct is often to try to fix, to say “don’t be scared.” But instead I replied “I know. I understand.” And I do, I really do.

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Meredith Hoffa is the Managing Editor at and lives in L.A. with her husband and two kids. Her work has been published in the NYT, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Boston Globe Magazine and several anthologies, among other places. Send her funny videos of people falling (but not getting hurt!) at