By now, the novelty of going back to school has started to wear off and a new reality has begun to set in. The excitement of new clothes and being reunited with old friends has been replaced with hours of homework and early wake ups. Life is no longer variable. Instead, it must be carefully planned and structured in order for busy families to be successful.
One thing I am often asked during this season is how parents can help their kids transition from the initial excitement to the monotonous rhythm of the school year. In talking with many families, the three strategies outlined below have been useful for smoothing out the back to school adjustment:
1. Discuss Expectations AND Be Flexible
I often encourage parents to sit down with their kids to review what went well in the previous year and begin discussing expectations for the new school year. Expectations about sleep, hygiene, phone usage, and homework are a great place to start. But rather than laying down the law, I recommend including your child in the conversation. Doing so allows kids to practice important relational skills like compromise and negotiation. Additionally, it promotes independence by giving kids a voice, even though parents have the final say.
The sometimes forgotten complement to structure and expectations is flexibility. Although utilizing “what worked” last year is a great place to start, keep in mind that kids are constantly growing and changing and so are their needs. Periodically reflect on whether your expectations are realistic or bringing about the desired result. If appropriate, include your child in problem-solving about a more helpful solution. Setting clear expectations and being flexible to adjust them when needed will help your family adjust to the new school schedule.
2. Just Listen
As time progresses you’ll likely start to hear about some of the challenges that come with settling into a new school year, such as problems with peers, friendships, teachers, or homework, just to name a few. When school-related problems come up, I find that parents are often quick to jump to one of two “helpful” responses: 1) working to make their child feel better or 2) going into problem-solving mode. In a lot of ways these reactions are understandable, particularly because a parent’s instinct is to protect their child from harm. In many cases, it may feel easier to offer a solution than to fully experience the the pain, hurt, or sadness your child may be expressing. But in my time working with kids, I’ve seen these responses backfire more than once. In fact, they often lead the adolescents and teens in my office to say something to the effect of “my parent(s) just don’t get it!”
The truth is, sometimes kids just want to feel heard. Offering understanding by listening and normalizing feelings can go a long way in expressing your support for your student. Additionally, you are sending the message that it’s ok to feel and express difficult emotions. Plus, you are providing your child another opportunity to flex their problem-solving muscles, an ever important developmental task of childhood and adolescence.
3. Check in
I often hear parents (particularly parents of teenagers) express concern that they wont know if their child is struggling with peers or teachers at school because they won’t “talk about their day.” I like to call this the “how was your day?” phenomenon. We’ve all done it – asked, “how was your day?” And gotten the knee-jerk response of “fine” or “good.” Adults are guilty of this too. So I encourage parents to lead by example. Share the best part of your day, something new you did, or a mistake you made that you learned from. “Checking in” in a more meaningful way can also look like asking open ended questions such as “tell me one thing you are proud of from today.” Some families even choose to do daily “pows and wows” or “highs and lows” over dinner or on the ride home school. In addition to having a clearer idea of what a day in the life of you child is like, meaningful check ins provide an opportunity for richer communication within the whole family!
If you and your family are finding yourselves stressed or overwhelmed now that the “back to school” excitement is starting to fade, you are not alone. Finding time to slow down, connect with one another, and co-create your own unique strategies for tackling new challenges will soon have you and your child working together toward a happy, healthy and successful school year.