By Diane Frusco
It’s Back to School time again, and by now you have already tackled the apparent needs: shopping for new school supplies, a snazzy new backpack, a cute and trendy lunch bag, and those great new shoes that all the other kids will envy. You've sent your child out to begin the new school year! But are you really done preparing for the school year? For some of our young students this is a brand new experience, destined to be repeated for at least the next dozen or so years. So, how prepared were you?
It seems so obvious, but if all you’ve done is shopped for the necessary supplies, you haven’t addressed the most important concerns of preparing your child for the start of the school year and for a lifetime of success. You’ve still got time. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Rest. Your child needs it, more than you might realize! Studies show that our young ones need an amazing amount of sleep time: 11-12 hours a day for pre-schoolers and elementary-aged students, and a whopping 14 hours for toddlers. The same studies also indicate that most children don’t get their daily required amount in. What can you do?
Begin by establishing a nighttime routine. Children thrive on routines, and few are as important as the nightly rituals. Choose the time and the activities that need to be addressed (bathing, brushing teeth, bedtime story, evening prayers, etc.) and then get started establishing that pattern. Make it a priority to provide that ‘down’ time each and every night, and your child will gradually learn to go off to sleep without much fuss. I say ‘gradually’ because it will be a process at first; your child won’t easily adhere to the schedule, unless you allow no wiggle room. It does mean that you will need to relinquish some of your early evening time to the needs of your child, but once she is down for the night, you have the rest of the evening for yourself!
2. Nutrition. The value of that simple word cannot be stressed enough. Start now, even in the beginning weeks of the school year, to get your child to eat well. Keeping to a daily schedule of meal and snack times is ideal, but if your schedule does not easily allow for that, then put your focus on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘when’ of eating.
One of the best pieces of advice that my children’s pediatrician gave me was to instruct me that variety isn’t always necessary. “If your child wants to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day—give it to him,” he advised me. So, once you have determined which foods are acceptable for your child to choose from, give your little one some choices and allow him to decide from which items you will choose. The key is: healthy foods. Bypass the pre-packaged Oreos and Doritos in favor of something with a bit more nutritional value—fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, yogurt, proteins. Occasional treats are not a problem, but a steady diet of junk food won’t give your child the fuel her body needs to succeed.
By giving your child some ownership in the decisions of what will be selected, you are teaching him skills that will assist him in becoming a healthy eater for life. Just be advised that because your daughter chooses cheese & crackers now, it does not necessarily mean that she will accept them in her lunch bag for the next ten weeks straight. Try to come up with a few alternatives, and then do vary, accordingly. Children get bored easily, so mix things up a bit.
If you really want to give your child some responsibility, have him help you with the preparation! Spend a few minutes gathering the food items and packaging them up for the week. Then your child might even be able to help out the night before by going to the cabinet and finding one of the ‘snacks’ he would like for the next day’s lunch. By allowing some degree of choice, you are lessening the possibility that your child will turn a nose up in disdain when the lunch bag opens tomorrow. If he complains, simply remind him that it was HIS selection, and ask if he’s changed his mind. (They are allowed to do that.)
And while you are preparing to pack those school lunches, there’s one more thing to include. Of course, you won’t want to forget the napkin and utensils your child will need, but young children LOVE getting personalized messages in their daily lunches! Even a couple times a week is something they will find exciting. Start now, preparing some simple messages or pictures that will be designed to put a smile on the face of any young child!
3. Information. Even young children can be taught to remember their address or phone number when it’s set to a familiar song. For years I would remember my sister’s phone number by singing along to ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ just as my niece had been taught to do. It was highly effective. Your child may be preparing to head out to a new classroom or a new school, surrounded by new faces. Help them have the tools they will need to get in touch with you, should the need arise.
At the same time, you may need to spend a bit of time giving your child some basic ideas on what NOT to share. If you don’t want her telling the teacher all about Aunt Martha’s surgery, don’t bother sharing details. If you don’t want him telling anyone and everyone that you have a house key hidden under the back mat—well, don’t let him see you putting it in and out! And look for ways to share (it’s very individualized, by child) some simple Do’s and Don’ts of dealing with people they don’t know. Begin to teach them who they can talk to and who they can trust. Always reinforce that teachers are there to help and how to reach out for help when they need something.
4. Experience. You can use these precious first weeks as opportunities to help your child to become more independent. When the skies are gray and you are heading out for the day, ask your child what you will need to bring along. If it’s a hat or umbrella, encourage the child to find it and bring it with you. If you are packing for the pool or the beach after school, include your child in gathering the necessary items, and ask what will happen if you don’t remember them. “What if we forget to bring your towel?” Your child will quickly learn about the process of planning ahead—a life skill that will be ever-so-useful in all daily activities.
If you want your child to wear a sweater, spend a few extra minutes allowing her to put it on herself. It doesn’t even matter if it’s not buttoned correctly; she will be practicing something important. If it’s important for your child to have shoes on, give him the chance to try to get them on before you assist. And if he should balk at the prospect, do not cajole or threaten needlessly. Simply find a convenient consequence that will fit the situation and use it to your advantage. “If you don’t wear shoes, we won’t be able to stop at the store for [insert positive reinforcement]. That’s too bad.”
5. Routine. There’s that pesky word again, but it’s vital. Start now to instill routines, and stick with them, even when YOU get tired and out-of-sorts. The most destructive thing you can do to prepare your children for school is to allow them to believe that school is optional. They need to know, right from the start, that just like Daddy and Mommy have a job to do, they have responsibilities, too. And it’s never too soon to begin to teach that.
So, establish routines and follow them. Make Tuesday your Library Day, and make sure that every Tuesday, at the same time, you say, “It’s Tuesday, and it’s time for the Library!” If Sunday afternoon is your time to visit the grandparents, make sure you keep to that plan. “This is Sunday, and we’re off to Nanny and Pop’s house!”
Then, find a few optional activities that you CAN deviate from, now and again. “Would you like to go to the zoo on Saturday or to the playground?” Your child will quickly learn that some activities are designed for recreation and others are part of the regular schedule in our lives. Then they will understand, right from the start, that school is not optional and certainly not something that they have the power to choose to attend. (Some studies have indicated that decreased scores in reading and lack of success in later school years can be linked back to poor attendance habits beginning as early as pre-school and Kindergarten.)
By now you’re thinking that this is all common sense, and it is. But it’s also very easy for parents to fall into habits that enable their children to develop poor habits of their own. Good routines are easy enough to establish, but harder to follow, as time goes by.
Develop a plan for your child, and then implement that plan, and the results will be transformational! Your child will benefit from increased confidence, and your child’s teacher will be so impressed with how organized and efficient you are! And even if your child never thanks you, or even realizes what you’ve done, you will have the personal satisfaction of knowing that you gave your child all the tools he would need for a successful school year, for this year and beyond. So, pack up those backpacks with school supplies, and get your plan going!