Have you noticed the occasional chill in the air? Nature’s subtle way of telling us it’s nearly time for the kids to return to school. The return to school can be a difficult transition for some children, and parents. For those who have not had much structure during the vacation, those who are moving to a new school and those who dislike or struggle at school, the transition can be most difficult. I have worked with many children with ADHD, autism and other special needs and these children need the transition to be very carefully planned. So what can you do to ease the transition?
1. Practice getting up early
Pick a day to practice the whole morning routine. If your child will be against this, plan a trip with an early start and involved them in the getting ready process. You may want to gradually transition bed-time and waking time towards the school routine, especially with teens, for whom the early morning starts, may be a big shock to the system.
2. Re-establish a routine
Mealtimes are a good way to get your child used to the rhythm of the school day. Have a few days where mealtimes match those of school. For younger children, find playful ways to re-establish the routine, through art or role play. When my kids were young we used to play “teddy bear school” during the vacation, with the help of the toys, we would role play the school day. For children with additional needs, a visual timetable of the day can help with getting back into the flow.
3. Get organized
Good habits established early in the year will save much time, energy and frustration. The last few days of the vacation are a great time to organize your child’s bedroom and school bag. Talk about their workspace for homework and get it organized, I recommend a stationary box with all of the essentials for homework. Choose a place for things like shoes or the school bag to be kept, when your child returns home. Post-it note reminders can help in the first few weeks, like: “Have you got your key?”, “put your shoes away” or “Tuesday is PE day” by the front door. Reward charts may help get a routine established.
4. Get your child’s brain back in school mode
Encourage your child to do some brain healthy activities such as puzzles, reading, journal writing or specific programs like Lumosity or IXL. When you are out and about with your child, get them to do some age appropriate Math, like spotting the number 3, working out the cost of 5 yoghurts or calculating the tip in a restaurant.
5. Set expectations for the year
Many children are self motivated and may not need this step, but for those who are not, it’s good to be explicit about your expectations and even put them in writing. You may want to include things like: “begin homework by 4pm”, “keep your GPA above 80” or “weekend homework must be done on Saturday”. Some children respond to “carrots” such as sticker charts or a trip to the movies, and others to “sticks” such as loss of privileges if they miss homework. I urge a gentle, reflective approach: school can be tough enough without it becoming a battleground at home. If a strategy is not working, then you need to rethink and find one that works for your child. You may also want to be explicit about your role in the coming year, for example “now I am working, I won’t be able to come to every game” or “you are in 9th grade, I’m not going to bale you out if you leave homework at home”.
6. Fun times ahead
Talk to your child about upcoming events in the year, like Thanksgiving, the visit of a grandparent or a weekend trip. This will take the pressure off the long weeks ahead, and remind them that life is not just about school and academics. Plan quality time at the weekends to do something as a family or something with just your child, even if it’s just to play a game of cards or take a walk.
7. Encourage independence
Each year your child should be becoming more and more independent. While it may sometimes seem easier do things for your child, children learn through experience, and learn more from their mistakes than their successes. Skills taught now, will last a lifetime. Involve your child in shopping for notebooks and pencils, get them to pack their bag for the first day and organize their clothes. When I went to college I lived with a girl who had never washed clothes, cooked, cleaned or shopped, her parents had really disabled her for this huge transition and she really struggled.
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8. Keep lines of communication open
Encourage your child to talk about the start of the school year: what they are excited about, what they are dreading, friends they are waiting to see. If they are reluctant to talk, tell them stories about your school days, this may prompt them to respond. Tell your child that they can talk to you any time they have a problem or want to share something with you. Model to your child how to share, for example “phew, I’ve had a really busy day and I need a break before I can make dinner”. If they are worried, get them to focus on something positive like: “5 things I am grateful for” or “my favorite memory this summer”. It’s an important time of year for you to stay calm, if something is stressing you, like schedules coming out late or a teacher assignment you are worried about, keep calm in front of your child and do all you can to sort out in the background. You are your child’s number one stress management role model.
9. Attend school social activities
If possible attend any social gatherings before school begins or in the first few weeks. Attend Open Houses and say hello to each teacher, so that you are not just another name on an email. Introduce yourself personally to secretaries, bus drivers and support staff, and thank them for the work they do: they are often under-appreciated and can be powerful advocates for your child.
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10. Introduce your child
This step is particularly important if your child has additional needs. Your child’s teacher will get some basic information about your child, but may not have read it thoroughly. Write a short email to each teacher about your child, outlining “does” and “don’ts” for example: “Sophie loves being reading but struggles with Math” or “Alfie is terrified of wasps and won’t respond to his full name Alfred”. Consider including a photo. If your child has special needs, recommend gently to teachers, how you would like problems to be handled, for example: “He becomes very overwhelmed if he gets behind, please contact me early on if you see this happening”.
The new school year is a time of opportunity to set up your child for a successful year. It is a time filled with anticipation, excitement and worry. Your child needs to feel that you and home are a safe place, where they are supported and certain. Spending a little time to get this process right, will save countless hours of frustration and upset, throughout the year.
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As always, I’d love to hear your comments and feedback.