By Melissa Benaroya, LICSW
Transitions can be stressful, and one of the major transitions families face is in the fall when kids head back to school and schedules change. Although parents might feel like no one's chaos could possibly be more chaotic than their own, in reality families face many of the same difficulties when it comes to keeping a schedule on track. Here are three of them, with some simple tips that will return order and efficiency to your family's life.
Getting everyone out the door
One of the biggest challenges the modern family seems to face is getting everyone out the door in the morning. Of course it is physically easy to accomplish, but the biggest complaint we hear from the families we work with is that it is a constant struggle and very stressful for everyone. So what can you do? Simplify! We recommend boiling the morning down into a handful of tasks (approx. 4-8) that your child needs to accomplish to leave for school. We suggest using a morning routine chart that you and your child create together. This chart tends to be much more effective when the child is involved in creating it.
Here are a few simple steps to creating a routine chart with your child:
1) Purchase materials: solid board and 3M™ hooks.
2) Have your child create a list of ALL the things they need to do in the morning before they leave.
3) Help them scale it back to 4-8 tasks, based on age/ability.
4) Take a picture of your child doing that task / have them draw it (laminate each if you like – they last longer)
5) Assemble board and place hole in the top of each picture.
6) Let your child order the tasks. Place it somewhere accessible to children, so they can manage it on their own, and it is visible to everyone.
Now that you have a chart to work with, your job is to let the chart do the guiding. You don’t need to keep asking, "Did you make your bed?" "Did you brush your teeth?" "Did you get your jacket out of the closet?" Now your job is to simply point to the chart and ask what is next.
The more your child owns the chart and the process, the more success you will see during morning routines. But, don’t expect magic. This is a process and it may take a few weeks before your child uses it independently. But it sure feels better than feeling like the taskmaster who needs to manage each morning event.
Preparing lunches that actually get consumed!
Every child, school, and family has their own preferences around what gets eaten at lunch each day. We suggest you have a conversation with your child around what the preferences are for all three so that you can create a list together of all the lunchbox options. This will help to create options for the lunchbox that your child will actually eat and will take the pain and guesswork out when preparing lunch for your child each day.
Starting the conversation with what the school’s guidelines are is easy since they generally have restrictions around what cannot be brought to school. Some schools rule out things like nuts and candy. So talking about all the things your child might like that is not allowed will help them to understand and rule them out from the lunch list.
Next, discuss what your family values, and considers essential for a lunchtime meal. Start by asking your child what they think is important to be consumed during each meal. You can then broaden and expand on their thoughts.
It can be helpful to discuss the why behind your family choices, too. An example of this might sound like, "In our family we feel it is important to eat healthy foods (fruits, vegetables & proteins) to keep our body strong, which will allow you to have the strength and energy to play on the playground during recess. And fruits and vegetables also help us to have energy and stay focused when doing work, like you do in the classroom during reading and math."
Making the connection between the healthy foods and the activities they enjoy will not only create a greater understanding, but also a greater commitment to wanting to eat those healthy foods you packed for them.
Lastly, look at what your child actually enjoys eating. Make a list together or take them to the grocery store and let them point out what they would like to eat in their lunch. If having a vegetable at each meal is something your family values, then one idea might be to take them to the produce department and ask, "What two/three vegetables would you like to see in your lunch this week?" The more they are involved in the choices, the more likely they are to actually eat it in their lunch boxes. The goal of this conversation or shopping trip is that you now have a list to draw from that is acceptable to your child and that makes daily lunch making much less taxing.
Getting sleep routines back on track
The summer nights (especially in the Pacific Northwest) are lengthened for all of us since the sun stays out so late. And who wants to go to bed when it looks like the afternoon at 9 p.m.? Most of us don’t, including our children. However, staying up until 10 p.m. is not going to make for a school ready child who is prepared to focus and learn at 8:30 a.m. So, easing kids back into their sleep routines is essential.
It can be helpful to begin this process a week or a few days before school starts. But, it is never too late. The number of hours of sleep children needs varies, but there are some general guidelines we can follow to make sure they are getting enough rest. Children 3 to 6 years old need between 10 and 12 hours of sleep (If your child naps, those hours are included in this number). Seven- to 12-year-olds need between 10 to 11 hours of sleep. In addition, 12- to 18-year-olds need only 8 to 10 hours, but they tend to stay up later to socialize and do homework so getting to bed at a reasonable hour is critical for your teen!
Back to school is a great time of the year to pick up those old bedtime routines we let go of or come up with new ones that work for everyone in the family. Routines keep everyone focused and tend to simplify our daily lives. Research has found that the human brain has evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily habits and routines are a primary way to manage stress. Why not make this part of the day less stressful for everyone and ensure that everyone is getting the sleep they need to be alert and productive the next day?
Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a parent educator and consultant in the Seattle area. She is co-owner of Grow Parenting, where this piece was originally posted.