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How to get your child back into a routine when a new school year starts

As seasoned parents know, preparing kids to go back to school goes beyond bringing out the backpacks and checking off a list of school supplies.

Welcome to August, otherwise known as the “Sunday of summer.” Every year, this month comes barreling in, knocking at our door, and we can’t help but greet it with a mix of surprise, sadness, and yes – even some relief. With the end of long days at the pool and soaking up the sun comes the beginning of back-to-school shopping and renewed hope that this will be the year our kids finally get to school on time.

As seasoned parents know, preparing our kids to go back to school goes beyond bringing out the backpacks and checking off a list of school supplies. This year especially, with many schools projecting virtual openings, the real challenge comes when we have to replace lazy afternoons in the sun with homework help and late-night bonfires with an earlier bedtime. But the new schedule doesn’t have to be a battle. Whether you have toddler starting school for the first time or a teen who’s entering their final year of high school, here’s how to restore routines (and hopefully, some peace).

Preschool and kindergarten

Start early on the sleep schedule. A successful first day of school begins with a good night’s sleep, but how soon should we rewind the clock? Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, recommends starting to get them back on an earlier bedtime schedule two weeks out, so your kids have enough time to adjust. You don’t have to do it all at once, though. Pushing back the bedtime by fifteen minute increments will ease your kids into the new routine.

Getting enough sleep isn’t just about going to bed earlier. In order to be ready for the morning wakeup call, your kids should start waking up sooner, too. Just like bedtime, McCready says stop hitting snooze around two weeks before school begins. Remind your little ones: having a good sleep schedule is the most important first step to starting the school year off strong. (And if all else fails – tell them that getting up earlier means a having a longer play day!)

Do a dry run of the first day. Just as kids have a dress rehearsal before their dance recital, they also should have a run-through before their first day of school. But what does this actually look like? Start by finding a day your family can go over the morning routine. Jennifer Miller, author of "Confident Parents, Confident Kids" says you can keep it simple, but also make it fun by turning the overview into a game. “Visual reminders work well at this age, so have your child draw each step, starting with waking up.” Then, hang up their new work of art in a central location, so you can get to practicing! If school is online, doing a dry run can help a virtual first day feel just as important as an in-person one, and can help create that same sense of accomplishment.

The key to a solid routine isn’t just mapping out the steps – but also figuring out what order they should go in. McCready recommends establishing a “When-Then” routine. “Structure your morning so the ‘yucky’ stuff – like brushing teeth or getting dressed – comes before the fun.” For example, tell your kids, “When you’re dressed, your hair is combed, the bed is made, and your school supplies are in order, then breakfast will be served.” Do your kids have a tendency to dawdle? Give them a time limit. “Let them know the kitchen closes at a specific time,” McCready recommends.

Anticipate the biggest issue. Starting school can be scary for some students, but you can help ease your little one’s worries before they arise. Michele Borba, author of "UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World" recommends anticipating the biggest issue of the school year, and planning ahead for how you’ll tackle it. Does your child have a hard time saying goodbye? Find a spot to say your farewells ahead of time. (Hint: Come up with your own secret handshake to do each morning as a special tradition!) Are they worried about getting to and from class? Help them map out the hallways, specially marking specific locations, such as the bathrooms, the cafeteria, or the nurse’s office. Starting at a new school? Find them a back-to-school buddy so they have one familiar face on their first day. Are they forgetful? Establish a space for them to put their belongings and show –don’t tell—them how to utilize it. (Grab the sticky note reminders for extra backup!)

Lay the foundation for independence.. Jumping back into the school year can be hectic, but resist the temptation of doing everything yourself, and instead focus on giving your kids the tools to be self-sufficient. “Think about how your kids could function on their own if there were no adults in the house,” McCready says. Whether it’s pouring their own cereal, making their own bed or yes – choosing their own clothes – empowering your kids to be independent will lay the foundation for the year ahead. (Think about it this way – the more they can do on their own, the less you’ll have to nag!)

Elementary school

Build on bedtime. Getting enough sleep will always be central to your child’s academic success, but as they get older, it may become increasingly difficult to enforce a bedtime. However, sleep shouldn’t be a negotiation, so keep it consistent by working with your child to plan out when they’re going to brush their teeth, grab a glass of water, read a story, and dim the lights. Still getting pushback? Miller recommends showing your kids why getting to bed is important by researching sleep requirements for their age. Finally, Borba says you can forget being the morning “bad guy” and increase your child’s independence by giving them an alarm clock and teaching them how to set it themselves.

Establish a homework policy. Elementary school may be your child’s first real introduction to homework, so start early with a policy. “Set your student up for success by giving them choices,” Miller says. From deciding when they want an after-school snack, to locating where they’ll have their study space, you can help your child create a system that works best for them. “Choices conquer power struggles and give kids ownership,” Miller adds.

In addition, McCready recommends incorporating the “When-Then” routine by explaining to your child what needs to happen before you’ll sit down to help them with problems they don’t know. For example, “When you’ve answered every question you can, and you can explain your thought process on the ones you’re stuck on, then I’ll help you.” Also, give your child a specific timeframe when of when you’ll actually sit down with them, so you’re not up all night working on a science fair project.

Once you’re checking through your child’s work, McCready advises parents to avoid the “red pen mentality.” Instead of starting off by marking incorrect answers, first focus on what they did correctly. Then, shift to what they got wrong or didn’t understand. You might also want to ask their teacher how they’d like you to approach helping with incorrect answers, because sometimes they’ll want to know where a student is struggling.

Talk through expectations. It’s no surprise that your child will still be dependent on you during elementary school, but you can make it a collaborative effort by laying out your expectations. “Tell your kids, ‘I’m happy to pack your lunch for you if your lunchbox is cleaned and in the pantry where it belongs,’” McCready says. This will show your child that your ability to help depends on their willingness to be a good team player.

Your conversation doesn’t have to be limited to your expectations of them, however. As academic and social dynamics change, Miller suggests asking your child about their expectations for the school year. Will they participate in extracurricular activities? Are they nervous about what they’ll learn? How will they navigate new friendships? Recount how they’ve conquered difficulties in the past and then brainstorm additional strategies for how to approach them in the future. By talking through various scenarios, you can equip your child with confidence ahead of time.

Revive the family meal. Whether it’s over a bowl of cereal at breakfast, or passing the potatoes during dinner, McCready says the key is to be intentional about sitting down, sharing a meal, and spending time together as a family.

Middle school

Turn bedtime into bonding time. As your middle schooler’s workload increases and after-school activities add up, you may find fewer opportunities to connect. However, taking time to turn off devices (an hour before bedtime!) and redirect your attention toward your tween will make the moments before bed more meaningful. Once your middle schooler has checked off their chores – putting away their homework, organizing their backpack, and setting out their clothes for the next day – McCready recommends winding down with an activity you’ll both enjoy. Are you big Harry Potter fans? Read a chapter a night. Passionate about the environment? Think through ways you can give back. By carving out quality time during your tween’s tuck-in routine, you’ll help them clear their mind and get ready for bed. “Ensuring your child gets enough sleep will be one of your biggest contributions to their learning.” Miller says.

Encourage ownership. As your child grows into a tween, they should begin taking more responsibility. This isn’t limited to the chore chart, however. McCready recommends thinking about how they can take ownership of their everyday lives. Does your student have a tendency to be forgetful? Implement a “no rescue” policy ahead of time and then help them set up a system for success. (What works best for them? Visual reminders? Phone alerts?) What about when your middle schooler has trouble on a test? Coach them on how to make an appointment with their teacher and then work with them on what they want to say. And if your tween is trying to plan out their extracurriculars? Encourage them to find balance by focusing on what they most enjoy and avoiding activity overload. (Pro tip: McCready advises one after-school activity per semester!) We know our kids learn best by doing so start the school year off by building the skills they’ll need to navigate their own challenges.

Make them a consistent contributor. Families function as a team – and every player needs to pull their weight. By the time your child enters middle school, they can take on more of a role. Want to know where to start? McCready says you can take one day a week to have them help plan a family dinner. Give them general guidelines, such as a specific serving of protein or vegetables. From there, they can research, plan, and yes – even help cook – the meal. This won’t just ease some of the burden, but will also be a productive jumpstart into the new school year.

High school

Let them operate independently. As high school rolls around, parents should be stepping back and letting their teens take the driver’s seat. (After all, if they’re trusted to operate a vehicle, they should be trusted to operate their life!) Starting off, this can be as simple as teaching them how to use an online management system so they can organize their own activities. But you’ll also want to talk about what they’ll be responsible for – particularly when it comes to expenses. “Be crystal clear about what you will cover and what you want your high schooler to cover,” McCready says. Will they have a job? Who’s paying for dinners with friends? Even if you’ve agreed to help your high schooler out, give them a lump sum budget to teach them how to manage their money and avoid continuously doling out the dollars.

Prompt them to make a plan. When your teen enters high school, you may notice they’ll start looking to the future more. Miller advises parents to ask questions to help your high schooler explore their goals. What’s their biggest worry this year? How will they stay organized? Are they looking to expand their circle of friends? No matter their aspirations – or concerns – you can help them execute their plan of attack. “At this age, the parent is an advisory role not a directing role,” McCready stresses. As they come into their own, they may have difficulty navigating their path – and they will almost certainly have a few power struggles along the way – but with your guidance, you can them take one step closer to being the independent adult they wish to be.

Life after high school

Prepare for change. We know that having a child graduate from high school and move on with their life is a major change, but understanding the different ways that change can occur can be challenging for both parents and young adults. Miller cautions parents that it can be a particularly difficult time in your relationship. “Often there will be a whole lot of fighting before the emerging adult leaves. Really, they’re just paving the way for a break,” Miller says. It’s not just an emotional transition, however. Often, going to college means relocating to an entirely new area with entirely new people. From learning to live with roommates to understanding how to access mental health resources, you’ll want to talk through what to expect with your young adult. However, with all the change that will naturally take place, you can assure your young adult that one thing will stay the same: you’ll always be there for them. (Even if it’s in a different way than before!)

Be a sounding board. You spent a year celebrating a string of ‘lasts’ with your high school senior – last first day of school, last yearbook picture, last time you ever agree to host a party of teenagers at your house. Now, they’re venturing off for the first time. As your young adult takes a step into the “real world,” McCready says the best support you can give them is as their sounding board. When they call you in a frenzy in need of advice, you can ask questions, be open, and allow them to find their way to a solution.