We’ve turned the corner on summer. Soon, back-to-school ads will be popping up everywhere reminding us of the difficult transition this fall. Hardest hit are children. In one day, they go from unstructured outdoor play to classrooms with strict routines, sitting, and long lessons. Neurologically speaking, it’s very challenging for very young kids. It takes time for them to adjust. Here are some ideas to help families get ready for the start of school.
Good nights allow for better mornings
Biologically, shifting sleep cycles can be the hardest part of starting the new school year. Kids have to suddenly wake early, and keep to a strict morning schedule in order to get out the door on time. Sleep cycles in children adjust slowly. Don’t wait until a few nights before the start of school to set a reasonable bedtime. That’s like cramming for finals. Think a few weeks ahead, early to mid August. Mark the first day of school on your calendar and work back about three weeks. Shift bedtime gradually (15-20 minute blocks), and get to where you want by about one week before school begins.
Moving helps sitting
For kids, the end of summer means a substantial decrease in their healthy physical activity. This impacts boys significantly, and many girls, who won’t be getting the needed movement their young bodies crave. Consider exercise every morning. It will invigorate kids and help them let off steam before they are made to sit long hours indoors. Bet you can’t do 15 jumping jacks. Can you jump in place 20 times? How about dancing? Let’s practice your karate moves. Some kids have safe, small trampolines, or use small exercise balls to balance on. Set a timer to buzz when activity time is over, and reward with stickers for stopping and having a good transition out to school. Walk or bike to school and try to arrive early so kids can play outdoors before going in.
Studies show that boys diagnosed with ADHD do dramatically better if they get regular, vigorous activity throughout the day. The positive effects of physical activity and outdoor time seem to work as well as medications to bring down fidgeting and promote better focus in the classroom.
Low-tech mornings work best
Turn off computers, hand-held game devices, and no TV! They are strong neurological distractions, and pull kids into a zombie-like state that is near impossible to break from. Brushing your teeth can’t compete with Thomas the train or fighting aliens.
Be clear with your expectations, up on time, dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, shoes on and backpack ready… If everything gets done cooperatively, then a small amount of electronic play may be offered as a reward. If your child can’t break from high-tech entertainment, consider removing it for a few days or weeks and try again. You may find yourself calling their name repeatedly, and them responding just another minute endlessly. If there’s a tantrum or bad mood after shutting off electronic media, you have a problem. Your child might not be neurologically ready to shift gears from these highly arousing, fast-paced electronic games into the slower routines of morning.
One mom I know thinks of electronic device time as candy – fun to eat, but totally unnecessary to survive on, and in very large quantities, frankly unhealthy. There’s ample evidence that she’s right. Too much media and electronic playtime has been linked to childhood obesity, hyperactivity, and school and social problems. Dole it out in small amounts, and only after less stimulating, but necessary behaviors and routines are attended to.
Stop doing too much parenting
Caring parents can often do too much for their kids. They remind, cajole, and assist, while their kids foot-drag their way through the morning. Parents get stressed and rush themselves out of the house to rescue their kids from being late to school. Kids begin to feel ordered around and dig their heels. Everyone is tense and unhappy.
One solution is to step aside and let kids manage the consequences of their behavior. Ask someone at school to speak to your child when they arrive late. Teachers and principals are often willing to talk about why mornings are important, what didn’t go well, and strategize how to make things go better. Kids need to know that their teachers and classmates depend on them and that they are part of a community. If you over-assist, children are robbed of owning and managing their own behavior. Many children won’t make changes until they face real-life consequences directly, (e.g., catching an unappreciated look by their teacher, or making up time and work at the end of the day and hence loosing an opportunity to do something more fun that had been planned).
Use the power of rewards
Positives also work to help kids manage their mornings. Points can be earned for timeliness and better morning behavior. The points are then turned in for reasonable rewards later that day or week. One boy I know went from chronically late to arriving early to school. His parents broke down the morning into manageable chunks (i.e., wake up when called once, get dressed before a 10 minute timer rings, eat breakfast, brush teeth…) and he received a point for each if it was done with only one reminder. He knew his coveted computer gaming time that afternoon had to be earned, five minutes per each successful step achieved. He also did better when dealing directly with the consequences of his tardiness. He wanted his teacher to think well of him. His parents stopped nagging and doing too much in order to get him out the door. Telling him it was his choice if he was late (or on time) stopped the struggle and handed control to him.
Practice successful school behavior
The most common challenges at the start of school involve compliance. This happens mostly in younger boys who are not listening or following directions. The demands to sit quiet, wait turn, share, and keep hands and feet to oneself, go against how many boys learn. They prefer to learn by being assertive, active, competitive, and use their hands more than words. But alongside these active, hands-on learning styles, are other skills that boys need to practice – to hold back urges, communicate with others, and think things through before acting.
This is best rehearsed at home before kids enter school. Things at home are understandably more relaxed and comfortable than in a classroom setting, and in the summer months, more so. This unfortunately sets up youngsters, boys in particular, to be inattentive and hyperactive when they suddenly move into a rigid and demanding classroom environment. It’s like going from an amusement park into a museum. Kids need coaching and practice on the basics of good indoor classroom behavior.
I encourage parents to practice certain skills over the summer months. Listening and follow directions are tools just as important as books and pencils. Practice the following at home as much as you can. When I say your name look up. Keep looking at my eyes… good job… now I’m going to tell you to do something. Remember what it is because I’m going to ask you to repeat it back to me… Good job. Now, you’ll get a point if you can do it…ok?”
Making home a little more like school can be useful. I don’t mean teaching long lessons or making home a place focused only on academic achievement. I’m referring to behavioral expectations. That is, responding when we hear our name called, giving solid eye contact, trying to remember what is asked, and trying to follow through immediately. Getting that sequence down, through constant practice at home, can dramatically improve a child’s behavior at the start of school.
Be realistic and acknowledge that the first few mornings may be tough come the fall. Validate the emotions your kids have that it’s difficult (even for you) to make a sudden shift between summertime and the long school year. But see it as a teachable moment. Recognize these early difficult mornings are part of how kids learn and make change. Learning always requires some mess-ups, missteps, and failures before new behaviors can take hold. Know that gains are usually made gradually.
Finally, stay positive. Don’t focus on what’s not going right, but what’s going better. Talk up the exciting and fun aspects of school each day, and make sure you plan special after-school events for the first few weeks. That will decrease the seriousness of back-to-school time and make a difficult transition a bit nicer for everyone.