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Parenting Articles
Back to School
Ease Into the School Year
(published in Parents' Press in 2012)
By Heather Larson


Tips for Transition from Summer to Fall

Just when you’ve settled into a laid-back summer routine, it’s time to start thinking about school again. Besides buying new clothes and school supplies, issues like bedtimes, healthy diets and a morning routine need to be addressed. The good news is the back-to-school transition can be a fairly seamless one with just a few modifications to your summer schedule. Bedtime is usually the hardest to change.

Autumn Green, a Pleasant Hill mom of two boys, ages 10 and 11, has found that adjusting bedtimes beginning in August works the best. During the school year, both boys go to their rooms at 7:30 p.m. They can read in bed after that time, but nothing else is allowed. In the summer their bedtime moves to 9 p.m.

“One month before school starts, I gradually back off bedtime in 30 minute intervals, so for one week, the boys must be in their rooms at 8:30 p.m.,” says Green. “The next week it’s set back to 8 p.m., and then it reaches 7:30 p.m. a week later. Reading is still allowed after those times.”

Diane DuBois, a psychotherapist with offices in San Francisco and Berkeley, has a 7-year-old son, Lorenzo, and says she also changes his bedtime gradually, but in 15-minute increments. If Lorenzo has been waking up later than he needs to for the school day, DuBois also changes that time incrementally.

“Older children can set an alarm and get themselves up independently,” says DuBois. “No matter the age, you want your child to be well-rested and content while he or she is getting acquainted with new teachers, new schoolmates and any new school routines.”

Changing Children’s Diets

Another modification you might not have thought about is what your children have been eating as opposed to what they should eat to have a more successful school day. By not changing diets too much over the summer, it’s easier to stay on a healthy track, says DuBois. But being a bit lenient isn’t all-bad. When her son was at circus camp, he saw some of the other campers buying snacks from the vending machine every day. Lorenzo asked if he could use the vending machine, too, so DuBois gave him a dollar to buy something on Friday — just one day during the camp — and that satisfied him.

Often summer is the time for some not-so-healthy food like ice cream, candy and most anything you buy at fairs and festivals. Green says she still serves healthy food in the summer, but she is a little more relaxed about the treats. So two weeks before the first day of school, she starts adding more protein to her boys’ diets and especially to their breakfast as an energy booster.

The idea is that you don’t want to have a lot of sugar in your children’s systems when they start school, but yet you don’t need to eliminate sugar all together either.

Start Some Traditions

In general, making going back to school pleasant just takes a little planning and thought about what can smooth over the transition.

Jill Shugart, a therapist and parenting coach with offices in Walnut Creek and Berkeley, suggests that rituals help parents and children deal with transitions more easily.

“Rituals take an ordinary experience and elevate it to something special,” says Shugart. “Kids could have one last trip to the beach or amusement park, write down wishes for the next school year and put them away to be opened at a later date, make a scrapbook of summer activities they did or have a special dinner or barbecue to celebrate the end of summer vacation.”

Christine Carter, Ph.D, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, also says having fun back-to-school traditions and rituals help her daughters look forward to that first day of school.

“Each of my daughters has a dinner party for kids in her class,” says Carter, who is also a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Carter’s daughters also have a tradition of shopping separately for back-to-school clothes with their grandmother. This experience includes lunch at a restaurant in addition to the shopping, and is something they both look forward to.

When you take your children with you to buy them new lunch bags, backpacks, supplies, shoes or clothes, you are doing more than just spending money: You are helping them own the experience of returning to school, says Shugart.

“Do the shopping a few weeks before school begins and not at the last minute, so children can savor the anticipation,” Shugart says.

Make a Morning Plan

Another tool for smooth back-to-school transition, Carter says, is having a morning routine, which calms both the children and the parents. If kids are exhausted and rushed when they wake up, their stress levels rise dramatically, and they arrive at school completely stressed out.

“Lay out an ideal morning routine that is achievable,” Carter says. “This goes for the parents, too, so you need to work on your own morning routine first. If you’re calm and ready to go, it works much better.”

Parents need to be ready to go to work before their children get up. Then the rest of the morning routine needs to be what works best for the kids. If they are easily distracted, Carter says, they need to eat first so their brain will stay focused and on task. If they are slow eaters, dressing and being ready to go before eating works best. For dawdlers, you may have to set a timer and give them a checklist of what needs to be done by the time it goes off.

Create an Evening System

Equally as important as what happens before the school morning is what happens at home at night, when the school day is over.

Before school starts, Shugart recommends thinking about the evenings, considering where the kids will do their homework and get prepared for the next day.

Setting up a designated homework station is a good idea, she says. “It is usually best to do this in a public space, such as the kitchen or dining room, where you can monitor and be present to support and help with homework when needed,” says Shugart. “Decide on the best time to do homework, and have the child do it at the same time every day so that it becomes routine.”

Make sure all the supplies needed to do homework are readily available at the homework station.

And also use the evening time to make lunches, pick out clothes for the next day, get backpacks ready with completed homework inside plus take care of any other necessary chores. To stay organized, Shugart recommends keeping a folder to hold any papers you need to sign and send back to school, pointing out that having everything in one place is very helpful.

Dealing With Anxiety

If your child is going to a new school this year, or if this will be his first year of high school, he may feel anxious about the unknown.

“Acknowledging those fears is really important,” says Carter, adding that fears may be irrational to us, but they are very real to our children. “Don’t say, ‘You’ll be fine.’ ”

One of Shugart’s tips for dealing with anxiety is to have the child make a book about it. The purpose of the book is to convey that new beginnings can be both exciting and fearful. Have your child write down (or if too young to write, dictate to you) what he wants to know about his new classroom, what makes him excited, what worries him and what he can do when he is feeling worried. Also, have him list other times when he’s felt nervous about doing something and how it turned out O K. He can include photos or his own drawings.

Taking a tour of a new school and showing him the route to school can also alleviate some of the stress or escalating anxiety.

It can be hard to change routines and habits, and it’s totally normal for it to be a little rocky, says Carter. Kids may be more exhausted or weepy while they transition. It’s OK for you to be comfortable with that discomfort. They are learning how to deal and it’s all a part of growing and learning.


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