"Structure helps kids feel safe." ~ Benjamin R. Chan, MD, University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute
Some kids can't wait to get back to class, see their friends, and excel at their scholastic work and extracurricular activities. Others loathe the pressure to fit in socially and fear they won't "make the grade" intellectually.
Regardless of where your child falls on this continuum, implementing consistent back-to-school rituals and annual traditions provide children with the security and stability they need to thrive while reinforcing family bonds.
Confront the Fear of Returning
"Most kids feel better when they know what's coming, when they know what the expectations are." ~ Melissa Lang Kontz, PhD
If your child seems tentative about going back to school, engage them in a dialogue to pinpoint their specific concerns. Are they concerned about a potentially tough teacher? Is the thought of harder subjects making them anxious? Are they worried about a bully?
Approximately 60 percent of kids don't tell an adult if they are being bullied. "Many kids don't report it because they worry that nothing will be done or that they will be partially blamed," explains Matt Woolley, PhD, child and adolescent psychologist with University of Utah Health's Neuropsychiatric Institute.
Be empathetic to your child's concerns while focusing on the positive things about going back to school. Generate excitement with a school supplies shopping spree. If the school is new to your child, arrange a visit to the classroom, cafeteria, and playground. Familiarize your child with the surroundings in advance of the first day to increase comfort and confidence.
Get in the Daily and Nightly Groove
Use the last few weeks of summer vacation to ease kids into a consistent school-day routine. "Stress and life changes associated with going back to school can bring on nightmares," cautions Dr. Benjamin Chan. Re-establish your child's school-year sleep routine by ensuring she's in bed early and rises at her school-day time.
The National Sleep Foundation suggests:
Kids between the ages of 3 and 5 get 10 to 13 hours of sleep a night
Ages 6 to 13 need 9 to 11 hours of sleep
Teens 14 and older should get 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night
Make sure kids put electronic devices like cell phones, tablets, and laptops away well before bedtime. Research shows that the glowing light from screens disrupts sleep cycles.
Help your child start getting dressed at the normal school-year time a few weeks in advance, and serve her meals and snacks at the same time that they will be eaten when classes resume. Make an effort to have regular sit-down family dinners.
Designate a spot where backpacks and lunch boxes always go, and help your child set out what they need the night before to minimize morning chaos. Placing homework in the backpack and choosing the next day's outfit eliminates last-minute scrambling.
Review Transportation and Safety Rules
Are your children walking to school, riding bikes, or taking the bus? Will you drive them, or have you organized a carpool? Are the exact drop-off and pick-up locations clear to everyone?
If they're riding the bus, review the schedule with them, and be clear about what they should do once they get off the bus. If they ride bikes, map out the safest route. Reinforce traffic safety information like crossing at the crosswalk and never accepting rides from strangers. The National Center for Safe Routes at School reports that most children aren't prepared to cross the street alone until age 10.
Determine After-School Procedures
If your schedule permits, try to be home when the kids return from school for the first week or two. If your job does not offer this flexibility, arrange some sort of supervision from a responsible relative, friend, or neighbor.
If your kids or teens are home alone in the afternoons, KidsHealth advises that you establish clear rules:
Designate a time when they're expected to arrive home from school.
Require them to check in with you or a neighbor as soon as they get home.
Specify who is allowed in your home when you're not there.
Ensure they know what to do in an emergency.
You may want to look into after-school programs or special interest classes that inspire them to develop new skills and talents. Check with your local YMCA, places of worship, community and youth centers, or parks and recreation departments.
Set a Time and Place for Homework
Empower your child to succeed in school by making homework an important part of his day's structure. You might let him decide if he'd like to play outside when he gets home from school and do homework later, or get homework out of the way first so his evening is free.
"The more kids have ownership in creating a routine for themselves and setting expectations, the more likely they are to follow it," suggests Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, National Association of School Psychologists Director of Government Relations.
Establish a specific place for studying at home. Can you purchase a small desk for your child's bedroom? Even if it's just the kitchen table, "Children need a consistent work space in their bedroom or another part of the home that is quiet, without distractions, and promotes study," advises the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Be sure to keep a watchful eye on their progress, and if your kids are social media buffs, limit the time spent on these activities during homework time. Before you know it, your family will be back in the school-year rhythm, and those lazy, hazy days of summer will be treasured memories.