Fresh Starts: Helping families get back to school, not back to stress

Image of a woman walking 4 young children to school

Researchers have dubbed it the fresh start effect: the phenomenon whereby people are “more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks.”

It convincingly argues that “temporal landmarks” like birthdays, job changes, public holidays and the start of a new month divide our lives into different parts. These landmarks take us out of the weeds of our day to day lives and encourage us to take a broader view of life. We can then view past mistakes or failures as belonging to the past. Unburdened, we can pursue present goals with more passion, drive and commitment.

For parents and children, that time of year is September.

Signs of stress

Back to school can be stressful. In her LifeSpeak blog What are the warning signs that back to school is taking a toll on both children and parents, registered psychotherapist Allison Villa lists the following warning signs for parents and children.


  • Less patience with a child or partner
  • Over-reacting to things that wouldn’t be a problem normally
  • Avoiding going out in public


  • Magnified feelings around small things
  • Asking a lot of questions or avoiding a lot of questions about school
  • Wanting more screen time (potentially as a way to numb feelings)
  • They may also appear irritable, forgetful or quiet, and they may even tell you they’re nervous, scared or stressed about returning to school.

Now that we know what the signs of stress are, what can we do to address their underlying causes?

In this blog, we’ll share expert tips from psychologist Dr. Deborah Ledley that families can use to help ease the stress of a new school year. Share them with your coworkers or anyone you think would benefit from them. We’ll identify three main types of stress families encounter and propose pathways for dealing with each of them.

Learning about homework stress

Every family deals with it at one time or another, but Dr. Ledley says parents can alleviate homework stress by clearly defining roles within the home.

For example, kids should do their own homework; parents shouldn’t do it for them. When kids refuse or fail to complete their homework, they face the consequences at school. Dr. Ledley says missing recess or being sent to the principal’s office is a more impactful punishment than being yelled at by a parent.

At the same time, it’s not a parent’s job to re-teach material that was already taught in school. It’s not their job to correct homework either. If a child doesn’t understand a concept, they should be sent back to school to seek help, knowing that it’s ok to ask questions.

“It actually builds kids’ resilience to get something wrong, have to go back to the work on their own, relearn it, do it right and hand it back in,” Dr. Ledley says. “We really want to take that step back and let kids go through this process on their own.”

Now we’ll move from the home to the virtual world and see how we can reduce the growing social stress and social media and technology.

Upgrading our strategies for social stress

Most kids 11 and older have their own phone. On average, today’s teenagers are spending more than seven and a half hours a day consuming media. Rather than trying to take away technology, here are some of Dr. Ledley’s suggestions to reduce the social stress associated with its use.

First, make sure teens understand that technology encourages us to present our best selves. No one posts photos where they don’t look good on Instagram or shares details about their personal lives that make them look bad. Teach teens to ask questions like: Do I have any evidence to prove this is the truth? Is there another way to look at this?

Social media is one stress hotspot, but another is texting. Why? Because teens text about everything. As adults, we text primarily about simple things like picking up milk or making plans, not serious topics like the state of our relationship. Yet teens text about all aspects of their lives, missing the nuance of speech and the non-verbal feedback we experience during in-person communication.

“As the adults in their lives,” Dr. Ledley says, “we need to encourage teenagers to try communicating face-to-face or on the telephone, really having conversations, really letting their guards down and letting other people in. And seeing that when we have these deeper conversations, not only is it fun but our relationships start to feel much more real.”

The final area we’ll tackle is sports and extra-curricular stress.

Taking a flexible approach to sports and extra-curriculars

Many kids find organized sports very stressful. They might feel overwhelmed by the number of sports they are told to do or embarrassed if they believe they aren’t good at sports in general.

To mitigate these issues, Dr. Ledley recommends enrolling children in one or two sports at a time—maybe the parents choose one and the child chooses the other.

She says parents often push kids toward sports like soccer or baseball, and sometimes with the intention of the child securing a scholarship to a good university one day. But when kids are not ready for a sport and they fail, they blame themselves. Often, parents blame the kids for not trying hard enough. Then kids start to believe they just aren’t good at sports and can’t do them.

“I think it’s really important that we help our kids to understand how their bodies work and how their brains work,” Dr. Ledley says. “What’s fun for you? What brings you pleasure? What are you really getting a charge out of? And help our kids to explore those interests, even if it means going in a different direction from where everybody else is going. Why does everyone have to play soccer? What about fencing or archery? Why does everyone have to do sports at all? What about theatre or model United Nations or debating?”

What’s next?

Leverage these tips or share them with your employees to improve mental health and overall wellbeing at home and in the workplace this fall.

In the next blog in this series, we’ll hear from organizational change expert, DEI strategist and senior director of talent management Siobhan Calderbank about common pressures that underrepresented groups face when returning to work in the fall. She’ll explain what HR managers can do to help fill the gaps for those groups in organizational support strategies.


Learn more about the Fresh Start Effect here.