As a mom of two kids – a son (11) and daughter (10) – it’s time to start planning for back-to-school, even though we’d rather not think about it until a day or two ahead of time while we continue to enjoy these last lazy days of summer.
Last year I made the mistake of just letting things go from summer one day, to Surprise! It’s the first day of school! the next, with disastrous results. I vowed to NEVER do that again. (I’m not sure if it was lack of preparing for the transition, but for the first time in his life my son experienced serious anxiety at the start of the school year. It was debilitating enough that he missed the first few days of 5th grade, and though we were able to eventually incorporate some helpful coping mechanisms, it was an issue throughout the year.) This year, especially since my son is transitioning to middle school, my goal is to help it go as smoothly as possible. Preparation is key. So as we embark on the new school year, I’m focusing on four areas:
- Healthy food
- Adequate sleep
- Creating good habits
As a nutritional therapist, of course offering my children healthy food is a top priority. But it should really be a top concern for any parent. If you think of food as fuel, the very thing that will literally energize your kids, then what you feed them is even more important than how much they eat. Let’s say your kid wolfs down a bowl of cereal, even a so-called “healthy” one, and washes it down with a tall glass of orange juice before running out the door. It will likely be around four hours until their next meal. Amped up on sugar (ever read the sugar content in a nice cold glass of oj?) and carbs, the poor kid is going to crash before the end of first period. They won’t be able to sit still, focus, or learn because their blood sugar level is through the roof! They’ll burn through that breakfast in no time and be starving to death by lunch. Do you see how this may be setting her up for failure right from the start? Instead, feed your little learner some protein and healthy fat. Think eggs and bacon or sausage; Greek yogurt (full-fat please) with blueberries and walnuts; a smoothie with a banana, almond butter, and spinach (I promise they won’t taste it); or even non-instant oatmeal with butter, cinnamon, just a bit of maple syrup and berries. Skip the juice all together – it’s practically pure sugar! This may sound extreme. This may sound like more work for you. This may even sound more expensive. But, getting up a few minutes earlier and budgeting right will make a huge difference for your kiddos. They’re totally worth the investment, right?!!!
Don’t even get me started on our country’s school lunch program. Let’s just say it leaves a LOT to be desired. However, it is what it is and for many parents, it’s the only option. Talk to your kids about making the best of their school lunch. By federal law each lunch tray must contain a serving of fruit and vegetables. I have seen with my own eyes how kids go through the lunch line and then discard the offending vegetable before even taking a seat, let alone a bite. If kids eat veggies at home, they are more likely to do so at school. Be sure to include vegetables in home cooked meals. Expose your budding athletes/nerds/bookworms/socialites with a variety of colorful plant matter every chance you get. If they don’t like it, don’t ever give up on it, but go onto the next one. The earlier you start your family on vegetables the better.
In addition to encouragement around eating their veggies and fruit, talk to your kids about choosing entrees that look healthier. Let’s take pizza, because what kid doesn’t love pizza? Usually they’ll have a choice between cheese pizza or one that’s more “loaded”. Suggest the loaded one. It will likely have more protein (pepperoni or sausage) and complex carbs if you’re lucky (i.e. onions, tomatoes, mushrooms). Stay away from the most processed of foods – like the pb & j sandwiches that are crimped together and packed in plastic – there is nothing redeeming about those! Chocolate milk? That’s 19 grams of sugar going straight down Johnny’s gullet right before he’s expected to sit down, be quiet, and learn. Best option is water or just plain milk. If chocolate milk is a point of contention, let it be a one-day-a-week-only treat, say Friday’s. It’s best to skip it altogether but that may be a battle not worth fighting.
If you’re able to pack a lunch at home, more power to you. This gives you and your child more say in the matter of their nutrition and well being. Sit down with your kid and together make a list of all the foods s/he is willing to eat, starting with their favorites at the top. List them in categories of protein, fruits, vegetables, and snacks. Post it on your fridge and be sure to have at least one item from each category available on any given day. As you’re packing their lunch, check the list and assemble accordingly. Better yet, have little Joey and Jennifer pack their own darn lunch. This is appropriate for most kids starting in about 3rd grade, maybe even earlier. It’s a life skill that will serve them well forevermore, they’re more likely to eat what they pack, and your trust in them to do it themselves boosts their self esteem. For you, it’s one less thing to do each day, and what parent wouldn’t be thankful for that? I call that a win/win! Just be sure they pack a healthful meal.
Adequate sleep is a must for students and parents alike. Our bodies do a lot of healing and restoring while we sleep, so this is a category to be taken seriously. Ever enjoyed some quality time with a child who didn’t get enough sleep the night before? Yeah, me neither! Kids. Need. Sleep. LOTS of sleep! I’m not a sleep expert so I’m not going to tell you how much sleep your little minnie-you needs, but if they’re frequently yawning, melting down, unable to cope with the normal tasks of daily life, whining excessively, or otherwise horribly behaved little creatures you’re too embarrassed to claim as your own in public, chances are they need more sleep. Here’s a tip: The best way to make sure they get more sleep is to put them to bed earlier. Rocket science, I know! Oh, and absolutely no electronics or TV within an hour of bedtime. (And in general, our pediatrician recommends no more than 1 hour of screen time on school days and two hours on weekends.) The amount of sleep your kid requires will ebb and flow. Pay attention to their circadian rhythm (sleep patterns) and growth spurts and adjust accordingly. My 11-year old can sleep until 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning. Since that isn’t possible on school days he’ll need to go to bed earlier. Luckily, our middle school starts at 9:05 so he’ll be able to sleep a wee bit later than kids whose school days start freakishly early. (That’s a whole other topic and soapbox I won’t tackle in this article.) Just know that growing bodies require a lot of sleep and it’s up to parents to assist our kids in getting the zzzz’s they need.
Teaching our children about creating good habits will pay off in spades as they grow more independent. Forming habits early lays a foundation for future success. Isn’t the ultimate goal of parenting to give your kids the tools they need to live an independent and productive life on their own eventually? We parents always remark how quickly the time goes by, and it’s true. Imagine your daughter turning 18, getting ready to leave the nest, but unable to manage her time, clean up after herself, or have the confidence to make wise decisions. We absolutely owe it to our kids to raise them up with the skills they’ll need to take their next step in life, whether it be heading to college, work, or the gap year I wish I’d had traveling the world.
I love my kids to death and at this point can hardly imagine them leaving home, but I certainly don’t plan on them living under our roof when they’re in their 20’s and beyond. So…habits! There are likely innumerable good habits one could list, but in the interest of time, I will share the ones we’re currently focused on as they enter the 4th and 6th grades. We have these habits broken down into 4 categories: How I take care of myself; How I take care of my room; How I help around my home; and Other things I need to do. Soon, this will be in the form of a chart for each kid – laminated so they can use a dry erase marker to check off what they’ve done in each category – with a point system attached because my particular offspring are motivated in this way. Here it is:
- How I Take Care of Myself
- Take a shower daily (important at this age, more so maybe than younger kids)
- Wear deodorant daily (ever smelled a middle schooler’s pits? Gag!)
- Brush teeth twice daily
- Floss teeth daily (Despite recent media reports, this IS important!)
- Keep nails trimmed weekly (My kids are known for their “pterodactyl toes” and it’s truly horrifying!)
- How I Take Care of My Room
- Make bed daily
- Put dirty clothes in hamper (no, the floor is not a hamper)
- Put clean clothes away in closet/dresser
- Tidy attack weekly (I know there’s carpet under there!)
- Vacuum weekly
- How I Help Around My Home
- Take the garbage and recycling out weekly or as needed
- Do the dishes (One kid gets odd days, one kid gets even days)
- Do my own laundry weekly (Hallelujah! This is a new one for us.)
- Clean the bathrooms weekly (Kids will rotate who gets the full bath and who gets the half bath and there’s a step-by-step how-to guide under the sink in each bathroom)
- Change the cat litter box weekly (a combined effort with one emptying the box and the other sweeping the floor)
- Other Things I Need to Do
- Daily homework and reading assignments (with the goal of weekends off)
- Pack lunch the night before (mornings are much more pleasant this way)
- Unload lunch bags right after school (no fermenting or rotting food overnight)
- Unload backpack after school, giving parents anything to review (nothing like getting a notice for a fieldtrip after the deadline)
My final strategy for back-to-school success is helping my kids stay organized with the use of a planner. This is a new one for me, so only time will tell how well it works, but I’ve heard from middle school teachers that their #1 piece of advice is to stay organized. I’ve always been one to keep a calendar, to do list, etc. so I’m hoping to instill this strategy in my kids.
As it turns out you can purchase planners/organizers for kids online that correspond to their age/grade. I chose these for my son and daughter (but many other planners and apps are available): Middle school planner and Elementary school planner. I held a “Planning Summit” with my kids last week to show them best practices for using an organizer. I had them write down the events they already know about: soccer practices, riding lessons, Girl Scout meetings, etc. on their weekly and monthly calendars. I explained the importance of writing things down in their planner as soon as they hear about them – birthday parties, assignment due dates, field trips, etc. In my daughter’s elementary school planner, there’s a place for the week’s spelling list – she’ll write these down as soon as they’re assigned. My son’s middle school planner has a page for writing down his schedule of classes.
In the beginning, I will likely review their planners each day to be sure they’re staying on top of their assignments, calendars, etc. My hope is that this tool is something they will use on their own to stay organized. My son has been very ambivalent about starting 6th grade, but as soon as he looked through his planner, he said, “This actually makes me more excited about middle school.” That was music to my ears – believe me!
Fellow parents, I hope you find these strategies helpful as you launch your kids into the next school year. With healthy food, adequate sleep, creating good habits, and helping them stay organized, we’re setting them up for success. If you have any questions or comments about this post, please don’t hesitate. I wish you and your children all the best for the 2016/2017 school year and beyond!