Gearing up for Back to School Part 2 By: Anastasia Ristau, PhD, LP

As we discussed in Part 1 – going back to school is a shift for the entire family!  In the previous blog we touched on parents getting themselves ready – both mentally and emotionally!  Now it is time for the whole family to get involved!

Begin gearing up the entire family by gradually shifting routines, slowly adding more structure.

Why set ourselves up for struggle by waiting until the week before school starts to shift family routines only to then find ourselves frustrated, resentful, and in the thick of perceived parent-fail after parent-fail?  If we’re going to stress about it all anyway, let’s put that mid-summer worry to good use and allow that to signal us to pick one family routine that needs to be different during the school year than how it is now in the summer, and begin shifting that process intentionally, early, and with the purposeful goal of gradual shifts. This will sting less, feel much less painful of a growing pain and perhaps will be better received than if you take an abrupt approach with an unrealistic expectation for instant change. Once that has moved along nicely, begin shifting the next routine you would prioritize. It’s much more realistic to find success with this kind of slow, gradual change than to expect everyone to do everything all at once.  Here are a few key areas to consider:

  • Bed-time/Wake-time: you all know the drill. School sleep schedule for most is a different beast than the perhaps more relaxed sleep schedule of summer days. Shifting your family sleep cycle is hard, but well worth it. Even small amounts less than what a child or teen biologically needs for sleep can lead to behavioral and emotional changes the next day. Although our physical calendar may change overnight, our bodies are much slower to adjust. It is not realistic nor fair to expect sleep habits and body patterns to change within just a few days. Fortunately, there are ways to ease our bodies into the sleep schedule we need! Unfortunately, this is easier said than done and does not come without battles. Here are some tips to minimize those battles and perhaps to make this process a bit less painful.
    • Begin shifting sleep-time/wake-time in 15 minute increments once every few days, or 30 minute increments once every week, until you are at the desired time.
    • Do the math – YUP – this means this must be started at least a few weeks ahead of time, depending how far sleep habits drifted this summer.
    • Start by waking kids up earlier and by preventing or shortening naps to make bedtime easier! It’s easier to fall asleep if we feel more tired, so waking up earlier serves this purpose.
    • Start using an alarm clock each morning and practice praising for success in responding to the alarm appropriately.
    • Consider tying cooperation with this to a reward for a few weeks to encourage more of these efforts, using external motivation.
    • Make sure to verbally point out how good it feels to successfully meet their goal to build internal motivation to continue these efforts.


NOTE ABOUT ALARMS:

PLEASE get an old fashioned alarm for everyone in the house. There are great visual alarm clocks for those who cannot tell time yet.

DO NOT, I repeat, do not use cell phones or other electronic devices for a wake-up alarm! Even though a device may be put on silent, night-shift mode/night mode, no matter who you are or what your super-powers may be, the urge to check our devices is one of the hardest things for human beings to resist on the face of the planet. Okay – this is possibly a slight exaggeration… but you get the point. Using smartphones in a bedroom is a setup for failure. There are biological and psychological reasons for this complex process. The “just one last time” urge that is instantly triggered by those seemingly helpful and innocent notification lights, flashes or blinks of the screen is very powerful. In a nanosecond, we briefly engage in using that device and boom. That’s it. Sleep cycle interrupted. Mind fired back up. Body activated. Ugh. You know the drill. It’s hard enough for ourselves, let along for a child or teen with a still developing brain. To put it simply, the brain of a kid or teenager is not exactly designed for great impulse control! Why put one of the biggest challenges for impulse control in their possession, at night during their most natural time of fatigue and vulnerability? Don’t do it. Period. They will be mad about this now but thankful later, even if they won’t admit to it.


  • The Brain Game: Like anything else, we get used to doing things a certain way and our brains adjust. During the summer, in many cases, kids’ brains are challenged very differently than they are during the school year – I would argue this is a good thing! However, it can be a brutal re-adjustment when kids/teens are suddenly expected to use their brains in the specific ways that school involves. The value of starting to re-engage kids/teens gradually in tasks or activities that wake the brain back up including gearing them up to practice the all important skills of sitting and focusing their attention to tasks cannot be underestimated.
  • Set aside time for “quiet time” to encourage reading, writing, math first every few days (set a schedule – perhaps Mon, Wed and Fri at first) and then gradually increase towards daily. May need parent presence 1:1 for the first several times.
    • Start small, like 5 minutes at a time for younger kids. Ease into this. Use visual timers. Older kids might be ready to start with 15 minutes or so.
    • Set goals together, collaboratively.
    • Tie this to a reward for cooperation, to encourage and motivate (external motivation)
    • Make verbal note of how good it feels to successfully meet their goal (working on internal motivation)
    • Decrease daily screen time if not done already — again do this in small increments so it feels less painful. (CAUTION: This is not fun. Might as well make your expectations realistic.) Consider implementing screen-free zones in your home and family vehicles. Begin increasing the amount of screen-free time and widening the net of screen-free zones.
  • Eating habits, nutrition – now let’s be clear, I’m a psychologist. I’m not a nutrition expert. That being said, we can’t escape the connection between psychological functioning and nutrition! Both the functional medicine and integrative health medicine fields are churning out new research studies left and right these days to support the important impact that nutrition has upon our mental health functioning. There appears to be a robust connection between what we put into our bodies and what we get out of them, both mentally and physically. It’s important. Pay attention to it. Seek out reputable evidence-based information to learn more.
  • Balance and moderation are key. Whole foods and less sugar where possible.
  • As far as prepping for school — just like with sleep, remember that our bodies are programmable! Begin shifting timing of meals to times consistent with what they will be doing during school year. This will minimize potential emotional roller coasters revolving around hunger.
  • Hygiene and other activities of daily living (ADLs) – shifting expectations towards more frequently showering, making their bed, exercise, etc.

Get the whole family involved

  • Scroll Out to the big picture with everyone to provide a guide for the entire school year.
    • Hold a family meeting. Communicate your top parent goals. Discuss top 3 parent-kid goals for the school year — hold a brainstorming session, eliminate, vote/veto, agree. Move on.
      • Make goals specific, measurable, reachable, reasonable, but big picture
    • Write or draw this out and post visibly in all homes.
    • Examples:
      • Argue less and communicate better when upset about something
      • Follow a regular homework routine
      • Get all my work done before Sunday so we can have a Sunday-Funday (no homework) each week
      • Work as a team with homework rather than argue
      • Have a family game night that is screen-free
      • Do a little bit of studying each day
      • Family wide implementation of screen-free zones

Enjoy all of the positives that the rest of this summer brings you. Don’t dampen these joys prematurely. Instead, let’s tame the internal beasts, and put the other natural and normal internal pressures and chaos that arise about this time of year to good work. Begin making small, gradual shifts and watch the dominos begin to enact bigger change, one small piece at a time.

Parenting can be the toughest, hardest, most challenging job you’ll ever love. Let’s let these challenges connect us to each other. Just know that if you feel it or think it, very likely others think it and feel it tooYou are not alone, you are not crazy, you are not a failure. You are more typical than you think! If we can just be brave enough to be honest about our struggles, others will do the same, and that will feel so good.  Support your fellow parents in easing off of the parent-guilt, turning down the volume on that punishing self-talk, and switching the channel towards a more healthy, helpful inner and outward path. Let’s start by gradually gearing our families up for what is to come – school or otherwise – one collective step at a time.

Breathing with you,

Dr. A

Dr. A is a clinical psychologist and clinical supervisor for the PrairieCare After School Intensive Outpatient Programs (Behavior Development Program for youth and Healthy Emotions Program for Teens