Just thinking about the start of school can be stressful for kids. New teachers, new classrooms, new friends, new expectations, new routines. On top of that, getting back into the school year swing of things, the school day routines, is not only stress producing but it can be a real challenge after the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
Researchers believe that the brains of humans evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily routines and rituals help us to manage stress. They help us feel in control. And so it is with children as they begin their school year–with all the adjustments they need to make from the more carefree summer life to the hurry-up-we’re-going-to-be-late-school year.
A mindful transition from summer to the school year, done gradually and purposefully before school actually starts, will go a long way towards easing that transition and lessening the new year stress and jitters.
Here are some tips for starting the school year off smoothly:
With older children
- While the older child (middle/high school) may actually be excited about starting school, it is way uncool to show it! Accept that there is likely to be plenty of moaning and groaning. Validate the feelings; share that everyone feels that way and that you recall feeling that way, too. Remind your child that the rigors and demands of the regular school year make summer all the sweeter.
- Do not race in to lay down school-year rules and demands. Rather, discuss what the changes should include and what they might be.
- Involve you older child in crafting the limits and boundaries that together you will make.
- Be sure to raise the issues of tech use and sleep, both of which were likely more relaxed in the summer.
- Make sure you child knows that you will “try out” your new systems and see how and if they are working. Agree on a time line for a check-in about how things are going. If necessary, adjustments will be made.
- Go in with a positive, can-do attitude. Expect the best and not the worst.
Starting Middle School
- Know that this is a huge change for most children, whether starting 6th or 7th grade. Remember excitement and anxiety live right next door to each other.
- Your transitioning child needs lots of patience, understanding, and calm. There is enough churning going on inside of him already. Be a better listener than talker.
- Interestingly, knowing how to work his locker (and get to class on time) is one of a new middle schooler’s biggest worries! Find a padlock and practice.
- Except for sleep and tech, make your new school-year rules as the need arises.
For elementary school age children
Mind your attitude. Not all children are excited about the start of school, but a positive attitude can be contagious. Instead of saying things like, “Your teacher won’t allow that kind of behavior in school,” try being positive by saying, “I know your teacher will be so excited to hear all about our trip to the mountains.”
Help an older child get fired up about what he might learn this school year: “This is the year that you get to study astronomy. I can’t wait for you to teach me which star is which.”
Take the time to talk about all the fun things your child did this summer. Then, when the teacher asks each child to write about her summer, she’ll be ready.
Introduce your child’s school night bedtime before school starts. School-age children need 9 to 11 hours of sleep, and while they may get that during the summer, sleep usually starts later than is good for a school night. Seven days before the start of school, begin bedtime 15 minutes earlier. Each night, take it back a few more minutes, until you reach the desired bed time.
Your child should awaken naturally in the morning after she has the amount of sleep she needs. If she doesn’t, you will need to adjust her bedtime earlier. She needs to become accustomed to getting up at the time that works for her and for you on school days.
Introduce your school night routine, including the timing, a full week before the actual start of school. While you may have allowed TV or tech time before bed in the summer, it may not be a great way to get your child calm and ready for bed on a school night. Researchers tell us that the blue light emitted from screens actually undermines our ability to fall asleep. Go back to your routine of bath/shower, books and tuck time. Get back to your low-key rituals that include an intimate bed time chat, downloading his day.
Adjust your morning routine. A week before school begins, introduce the school morning routine. A sure-fire way to start the morning out right — without fights about clothing and the like — is to follow this schedule:
1. Snuggle time (Hopefully even your older kids still crave it!)
2. Get dressed (Beginning at 4 years old, children choose their own clothing, hopefully laying out their outfits the night before, and dress themselves!)
3. Eat breakfast, but only after your child is fully dressed. (If you are worried that he will get his school clothes dirty, throw on one of your old tee shirts over his clothes.)
4. Brush teeth.
5. Bonus time! (a few minutes on the computer (for older kids), a quick game of Go Fish or Uno for the littles.)
Designate and make ready a homework place. For even the most reluctant child, there’s nothing quite like brand new school supplies. (Remember?) And when you shop, get some extras. It will make the return for second semester after Winter Break a whole lot more appealing with a brand new box of markers. After you have shopped with your child, decide with her where she will do her homework. Not only should she have her notebook supplies, but she can also feather her homework nest. The more involved she is, the more willing she will be to settle down and get to work when the time comes.
(Be sure to find out from your child’s teacher how involved you are supposed to be with her homework. My vote? After second grade, not at all.)
Plan your breakfasts and lunches. With your child, make a list of what she likes to have for breakfasts on school days, being mindful of time constraints. Make a second list of all the lunch foods she best likes, using categories like sandwiches, fruits, snacks, extras. If they are her choices, it is more likely that the lunch box will come home empty. For children 7 years and older, encourage them to begin packing their own lunches, making it sound like it’s a privilege. You make the “main course” and let her pack the rest. And be sure to purchase foods that come in portion sizes, or create your own from the giant size bag you bought at Costco!
When the school year begins…
Create routines. Whether it’s helping you make lunches, when and where she does her homework, or when she does her chores, routines help the child to stay on track.
Have rules. Each family will have a different idea about TV/tech time during the week. Have a family meeting to discuss your ideas. Be sure to solicit your child’s opinion, and compromise where you can. Children who are involved in the rule-making are more likely to stick to them.
Do as much as you can do the night before. Help your child lay out her clothes (if necessary); set the table for breakfast; make the lunches; put the grounds in the coffee maker; put out trip slips, backpacks and anything that needs to go to school by the exit door.
Set your own alarm clock earlier. I know you’ll hate this one, and I am sorry. But hurrying is the enemy of children. Set your alarm clock 10 minutes earlier than you think you need. If you are not rushed, you will be more relaxed with your child. You will be just that much more available to your child, and she won’t need to act out to get your attention. A chaotic, hurried atmosphere doesn’t make for a great school day send off.
Overestimate your family’s prep time. However long you think it will take everyone to get ready for school… double it! If there is extra time, spend it doing something fun, even unexpected with your child. It will help to start her day off happily, and it’s much better than rushing her.
Eat breakfast together. Spending a little quality time at the breakfast table together (not watching the news, not checking email, not focused on the food that is or isn’t being eaten!), goes a long way toward filling your child’s tank. Her moments with you will stay with her throughout her whole day, reminding her that she belongs to a family who loves her.