9 Back to School Behavior tips: How to Set Up a Structure that Works
It's that time again-all around us, TV ads and store posters depict happy children and teens in back-to-school mode. But if the thought of your child starting school fills you with dread, you're not alone. Right now, thousands of parents across the country are asking themselves, "How am I going to get my child up on time, get him to do his homework and make sure he stays out of trouble this year?" Janet Lehman, MSW tells you how to establish structure in your house before the school year starts-and what to do if you haven't.
How much should you realistically try to change? Pick out the things that are most important and also the most likely to succeed." Why is it so hard for parents and kids to get back in the groove again when the school year rolls around? The answer is simple: summer is different. There is less structure and more freedom. Maybe your ten-year-old son went to day camp or participated in a summer sports program. Or maybe your teenage daughter had a part-time job that she really enjoyed, but she didn't have other responsibilities. The bottom line is that summer is usually a lot less demanding than the school year for kids and parents alike.
If your child did not have a good experience in school last year, at the start of the summer you might have had great plans for all the things you were going to do; things like sticking to a routine, getting him out of bed at a decent hour and making sure your child kept up with math and reading during vacation. But perhaps you, like many parents, were not able to fulfill all-or even some of these goals. Even if you were able to make a few changes, it's natural to start school with the fear that it's going to be "just like last year." Unfortunately, some kids have trouble readjusting to school every year. If your child is like this, you can probably already see those tantrums and angry outbursts coming.
If you've fallen into a lack of routine over the summer, how can you re-introduce one? And how do you go about establishing a structure that works? Here are a few suggestions for families to try before the school year begins. (In a moment, I'll tell you what to do if your child has already started school and you're "feeling the pain" now.)
If you decide to have a family meeting, I recommend that you really plan out what that meeting will look like ahead of time. Ask yourself what you expect from your kids at the meeting and what you expect from your spouse. In my opinion, you should be going into it with a pretty set agenda. Pick a few things to tackle and talk about those things. They might be bedtime, homework, or getting to school on time. I also think it's important to get some input from your kids and listen to what they have to say. So while you should have a set agenda, I think it's important to make this a fairly open conversation, with everyone getting their concerns on the table.
It's useful to involve your younger kids in these meetings, even if they may be listening more than they're talking. It's okay if they do an activity like coloring while everyone is talking. Remember, they're part of the family and they should have a part in developing the back-to-school structure, even if it's only being present and listening.
Think of the things that are really a "must do" to make the school year work. You could also simply pick the time of day that proved to be the most difficult last year. Make it a problem-solving discussion. For example, you can say, "Okay, we're going to focus on mornings. We had a hard time last year and it didn't work well for anyone. How are we going to make the mornings better?" Or, if homework was the issue for your child in the previous school year, focus on what homework time is going to look like from now on.
If your child is younger, you might develop a chart or a poster for them that lists out the new structure and expectations, or just give them simple reminders of what the new routine and new structure might look like. If you have a teen who does not participate, you can give suggestions: "Last year, you had a hard time with homework. What are some things we can do this year to change that?" If your child doesn't answer, you can say, "How about getting you some help from school with math?" or "You liked Mr. Jones, your Algebra teacher. I can see if he has any good ideas to help you."
Remember that it takes everyone's efforts to make this work-especially yours. I'm a mom myself and I understand that going back to school can be hard on parents. You have to change your routine, too; you have to learn to reschedule. You might have to get up earlier, and most certainly you'll have to transport your kids to more places. So the more preparation everybody can have for this, the better that everyone will do-and the more chance there will be for success.
You can say to your child, "Okay Taylor, do you remember how it went last year when the teacher was asking you to turn in assignments? Remember how you weren't able to get them in on time? What are we going to do this year to make that better for you, so you don't get into trouble?" Talk about ways your child can hand his homework in and remind him of all the things he learned last year. "You learned what didn't work when you weren't organized with homework. You know how that failed. Let's look at some ways to get organized."
You're also going to remind him of the things that did work last year and try to build on them while trying to avoid the things that didn't work because of lack of structure or preparation. For example, you can say, "Remember how Mrs. Lawrence had you write down your reading assignments in your notebook each night and then check off when you'd completed something. That seemed to really help. Why don't you do that with all of your classes this year." In other words, use the lessons from the previous year to plan to do things differently this year.
Parents also need to realize that the new school routine actually requires a whole new set of organization for them. You need to know what the activities are, which papers need to come home with your child from the school, and which papers you need to read and return. You also need to plan how the school week looks, how you will get everyone to their activities, how you will fit in homework time, and how you will manage to keep things on an even keel. It's challenging for everyone, but it's really never too late.
Kids with Anxiety: For kids with anxiety, it may be really hard to do too much talking about school before it begins, because it's just going to raise their fears. Keep the conversation short and sweet. With younger kids, instead of talking about things, make some posters or create some visual reminders. And be open to hearing what your child has to say about school so that if he does get anxious-if things are going wrong once school starts, for example-he can come to you to talk about it.
I recommend that you start opening that channel before the school year begins. Try not to dwell on it yourself because your anxious child is likely doing that in his own head, and will pick up on your anxiety. But be open to hearing your child's worries about school; be a safe place for him to take those worries-and then move on from them. Don't focus on them and don't take them on as your own. After all, they're just worries-and worrying has never gotten anyone anywhere.
If your child has a certain anxiety about gym class or algebra you can also look at it as a problem, and ask, "How are we going to solve it?" I think kids who are anxious are going to see one giant bundle of problems-and it's probably a tangled bundle of problems at that. Your job as the parent is to pull that apart and help them tackle one thing at a time. Pick the thing your child is most likely to succeed at, and go from there.
by Janet Lehman, M.S.W.
Janet has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years.