Dreaded by children and heralded by parents: back-to-school is coming. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the back-to-school rush of spiral-bound notebooks and number 2 pencils and pants that cover summer-stretched legs, we sometimes forget about preparing the most important thing of all: our children.
After a summer of leisurely swimming and endless free time, gearing up for academic demand can be difficult. After all, nobody likes adjusting to crack-of-dawn wake-ups when the summer sun still lingers long after bedtime.
I spoke with Dr. Heather Ulrich, a psychologist who specializes in parenting and child psychology, to get some tips on how to ease the transition.
Set them up for success
“In anticipation of any transition or new event, talk with your children about it. Talk about what they are excited about, what they are nervous about, and what they just plain don't like about it. Validate how they feel, and then use collaborative problem solving to talk about how to make it easier for them,” says Dr. Ulrich.
“Phrases such as, ‘It's never fun to do things we don't like to do, but, unfortunately, it is a part of life sometimes,’ and ‘Let's try to see what we are excited about for school because if we focus on the good parts we will feel better about it’ can be helpful,” she continues.
Include in your conversation what upcoming days will look like in terms of waking up, getting ready in the mornings, and after school. Knowing what is coming can help smooth the transition when it arrives. Drive by the school and be sure to attend meet-your-teacher night, if possible. Set up a playdate with a classmate they haven’t seen much this summer.
For younger children, a visual count-down can be helpful. A personalized calendar not only lets them count how many days lie ahead until school starts, but also gives them space to record their favorite school moments throughout the year.
Collaboration is key, stresses Dr. Ulrich.
“Including your children in preparing for back to school and the upcoming adjustment is always a great idea. Ask for their thoughts about what might help them get into a routine easier and with less stress. Collaborative problem solving in this manner strengthens a parent-child relationship, helps children develop problem solving skills, makes children more likely to participate because they had a say in it, and gets them thinking about potential future stressful experiences,” she says.
Focus on sleep
In regard to bedtime, Dr. Ulrich recommends allowing your children to take part in developing their own bedtime routine.
“Ask them what will help them wind down for the day and get ready for sleep, especially when it may be at a time that they don't want to go to bed. Develop a toolbox of relaxing activities that they can do in bed to help them fall asleep and relax when they are not tired. Begin to practice these strategies the week before school as you ease into them,” she says.
The routine could include a nightly walk, a warm bath, or soothing music, and the toolbox could include things like mindful activities cards, which are great for settling busy minds, or their own journal.
It isn’t easy adjusting sleep for early wake-ups when sunlight is still streaming through the windows and our internal clocks are still set to summer. Fight back the daylight with our Parenting Editor's favorite blackout shades, or light-blocking curtains and a curved curtain rod to go with it—a regular straight rod allows light to sneak in the cracks.
For children who have trouble falling asleep, Dr. Ulrich suggests trying a weighted blanket in a kid-friendly pattern. Initially designed by occupational therapists, the added pressure can release neurotransmitters that help children settle into a relaxed state.
A high-quality sound machine can also help soothe resistant sleepers and block out the bustle from the rest of the house. The Marpac Dohm white noise machine is one of our long-standing favorites, while the HoMedics Deep Sleep Mini Portable Sleep Sound Machine is portable and offers a guided meditation for kids who are open to it.
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Make waking-up easier
The week before school starts, you can practice easing into earlier bedtimes and wake-ups, perhaps working backwards 15 minutes a day. For example, if your child is going to bed at nine o’clock and waking up at eight, have them go to bed at 8:45 and wake at 7:45, and the next day try for 8:30 and 7:30, and so on. The slow transition can avoid the stark exhaustion of an abrupt adjustment.
An alarm clock may up the appeal of early wake-ups and increase independence. The Outwit Kids alarm clock comes in lots of different colors and lights up to ease kiddos out of slumber, and includes the date, day of the week, and temperature to help them know whether or not to grab a jacket on the way out of the door.
Clear your after school schedule
“Try not to overload your schedule or your children's schedule for the first few weeks of school to allow for a smoother and easier transition,” says Ulrich, “Give your children time to adjust to the demands of the school day and any homework or out-of-school obligations before piling on extracurriculars or other events.”
Initially eschewing extracurriculars allows your kids time to decompress after school. It’s a big adjustment to return to an environment that’s both mentally and emotionally demanding after several months of summer fun.
They may be sitting much more than they’re used to, which can be draining and cause pent-up energy to accumulate, so immediately after they get home from their day, ask them what they need and work out a routine. Some kids prefer a sensory break alone in their room before they are able to talk about their day and do homework, and some kids need a physical release.
For those that need to move, encourage a run outside or kicking around a soccer ball. A trampoline can be a great place to burn off excess energy, or if it’s raining, an indoor trapeze bar mounted on a door is a great option for monkeying around.
Set up a dedicated homework space
Letting kids create their own space to complete homework may help them want to engage in it. The options are endless: a portable lap desk is great for setting up a homework space anywhere their whim desires, or you can opt for kid-sized desk of their own. Flexible seating can also help with focus: a chair that's designed to wobble is a great option for kids who need to wiggle while they work.
Hone your routines
Pre-planning on your end can help mornings and evenings go much more smoothly for everyone involved. The more prepared you are as a parent, the more you can focus on being present during frenzied mornings, homework help, and tackling any issues that arise as your child returns to school.
It may be helpful to prepare instant-pot-friendly meals to throw in the freezer so that all you have to do is toss them in and press a button, saving precious time when things can get hectic and meltdowns can ensue.
Preparing lunches the night before can save time in the morning. Toss a sandwich, a fruit, and a veggie into a reusable lunchbox, that stacks easily in the fridge, so that all you have to do in the morning is zip it into their lunch bag, and you’re good to go. They wash well in the dishwasher and should last for your child’s entire school career.
The time and forethought you put into this annual transition will pay off in the long run, and leave you and your child with the time to cultivate your rapport. By and large the most important ingredient to a successful launch of a new school year is a supportive parent.