Back to School: Pausing to Prepare

As the days become cooler and the fruit is ripening on the vines, our kids must go through the annual ritual of saying goodbye to the sweet carefree summertime and re-enter the world of institutionalized learning.  Needless to say, this is not always greeted with exuberant cheers. 

And yet this time of transition can be a wonderful opportunity for your family to pause and prepare your child for the coming school year with a sense of heightened joy and anticipation rather than burden and stress. 

Transitions are times of necessary change that promote growth and prevent stagnation. We don’t always want to let go of what we know in favor of something new, particularly when the future is unclear and seems guaranteed to demand a lot of work.  Preparing our children for new growth is like preparing the ground for harvest.  When the roots are nourished, there will be more abundance of fruit. Here are ten basic practices that can help ground your children and set the mood for a good year of learning ahead.   

  1. Emotions Are Contagious:  Be mindful of your own sense of stress during transitions.  Emotions are passed around a family like a hot potato and your child is bound to model your own attitudes about school.  Take time to pause and consider this moment as an opportunity to help open your child’s heart to the sense of wonder and adventure in learning.  Create opportunities for your child to describe her feelings about the coming year.  Developing a rich language of feelings helps improve emotional regulation and promotes academic and social success.
  2. Beware Great Expectations:  Sometimes we may unknowingly set the bar so high for our children that they become overwhelmed with goals may seem unattainable.   Try to break down goals and objectives into small steps, taking one day at a time.   Some children can become paralyzed because of their own perfectionism. Remember that there’s more to the learning process than grades alone.  Promoting a sense of humor and creativity in learning will encourage your child to be more flexible and willing to challenge herself.
  3.  Map the World: We rely on maps when we are in a new place so that we don’t get lost.  If your child is showing signs of transition-anxiety about the coming school year, it may help to map out his day and rehearse the activities of getting up for school, changing classes, coming home, etc.  Maps can also be useful in helping her organize homework and plan projects.  This will help reduce anxiety and respond to transitions with greater flexibility.
  4. Organize the Space:  Take this moment of transition to reexamine your home.  Where will your child be doing his homework this year? Is it a clean well-lit area that promotes good study habits?  Your child’s organizational skills reflect the workspace.  Some children do better working in the kitchen where you are available for questions while others need a quite place to avoid distractions.  Remember that in this age of technology, there are plenty of opportunities for your child to get lost surfing the web, playing videogames or texting friends.  By organizing your child’s space with him, you are promoting greater mindfulness and setting the stage for a positive experience of learning this year.
  5. Make Breakfast Matter:  Making breakfast a priority is one of the simplest ways of ensuring academic success for you child. A child requires a protein-rich diet in the morning to jump start her mind and support the nutritional demands of a growing body.  Most breakfast cereals are nothing but sugar and do not sustain attention throughout the morning.   Parents often complain that there simply isn’t enough time for breakfast in the morning.  Changing routines to allow time for breakfast may require waking earlier.  By beginning the day with a balanced meal, your child will experience less swings in blood sugar that are linked to poor attention and difficulties regulating emotions. For the on-the-go teen, protein shakes may be a good alternative. Talk to your doctor about choosing high-quality products on the market.
  6. Eat with Your Children:  Eating is not just for fueling up.  It’s a time to come together as a family, to share ideas and to de-stress.  Remember you are a role model for your children. If mealtime is spent alone or in front of a TV, there’s no time for you to model mindful eating practices that can enhance learning.  The dinner table is the first classroom and a great place to practice listening and participating. Eating together is the time to share the day’s events and problem-solve as a team.
  7. Practice Storytelling: Narration is one of our most precious human gifts.  Learning to tell stories well builds confidence, promotes participation in the classroom and allows your child to gain deeper insight into hidden meanings and connections of a subject.  Have your child practice telling stories about what he experienced over the summer.  It is likely that this is going to be one of the first questions the teacher asks on the first day of school anyway.  Storytelling is also a great way to improve memory by placing information learned in school into a broader context.
  8. Sleep is Key: Many studies have how important adequate sleep is for being able to process information.  Children’s late night summertime sleep habits often require retraining in preparation for the school year. Waiting until the night before the first day of school is a setup for big problems.  Take this time to start creating nighttime routines that will offer your child adequate sleep.  You may be surprised to learn that a five-year-old, for example, should be getting 10-11 hours of sleep for effective brain function during the day.  Effective sleep training requires gradual adjustments of bedtime and wakeup times rather than big jumps.  Consider shifting bedtime backward by 20-minute increments each night over the next week or two until you get to the desired bedtime.  A child who has had a good night sleep is better able to pay attention with flexibility and focus and deal with the challenges of the next day.
  9. Breathe: Children are under enormous stress in school these days. Mindfulness breathing techniques allow your child to be more fully present in her body and better equipped to manage the daily stress of the coming year.  You can practice belly-breathing exercises with your child for five minutes every night to help build her confidence in these techniques.  These exercises are also a great way to bond with your child before going to sleep.
  10. Embrace Diversity: Remember that we don’t all process information in the same way. One size does not fit all.  To really help your child prepare for the school year, take the time to discover what routines, study habits and strategies work best for his learning style. As I discuss in detail in my new book Fire Child Water Child, each child possesses a secret power of attention. Once we identify our child’s unique nature, we can discover simple, practical ways to cultivate his strengths and guarantee future success.
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
Gabrielle Roth on Retrieving Our Souls