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Back to School Advice

By Jill Davidson

For all of us, no matter what kind of school our kids go to, or what sort of summer routine (or lack thereof) we’ve had, the event of heading back to school is a powerful universal, something that nearly all families experience collectively.

backpacks-2ndgradeI opted to check in with a teacher to get the professional perspective on ways to get kids to make the seasonal shift successfully. Currently teaching fifth grade at The Learning Community,  a charter school in Central Falls, Maureen Nosal has been in the classroom for 16 years. As she gets ready to welcome students into her classroom, she offers some thoughts on what families can do to help create the best summer-to-school transition.

Hit the Sack
Nosal believes that lack of sleep poses one of the greatest challenges to students as they return to school. “Kids and parents are busy, with busy lives.,” says Nosal. “What we see in the classroom is a lot of yawning. During those first few weeks back, kids don’t have enough stamina or resilience. Some of them get frustrated easily and they can’t make it through the day intact.” The solution, of course, is to go to bed early enough, winding down screen time and other excitement early enough so that kids are used to getting to bed at a suitable hour, and focusing on maintaining a consistent routine during the first few weeks of school until it becomes a habit. (Author’s note: on Tuesday nights for as long as its season lasts, Wipeout will be the biggest challenge to bedtime in our house. It has been a summer delight, but unsurprisingly, with three young boys, it is not particularly soothing or soporific.)

Pack the Pack
A benefit of establishing good school-night sleep habits is time in the morning to get ready without rushing. Nosal suggests, when possible, that kids should get up early enough in the morning to take part in getting ready for school and out the door with all necessary items in backpacks. Working with your kids to make sure that they have packed their own backpacks with homework, permission slips, that cool book they need to show their friends, and other necessaries has real advantages that may not be evident until the school day has started. When well-meaning and often time-crunched parents and family members pack backpacks with the day’s important stuff, kids don’t realize when they have, and don’t really keep track of what’s expected of them. As Nosal notes, “We get kids coming through the door not knowing what’s in their backpacks,” which leads to a certain amount of confusion and anxiety in the classroom. She suggests that families establish a place at home to unpack at the end of the day. “Getting stuff out of that backpack is hugely helpful, says Nosal. “Students need to know where they put their stuff when they unpack their backpack so they can avoid the mad scramble in the morning.” (Another author’s note: we are going to have backpacks ready to go in the front hall before bed. And by “we” I mean, as much as possible, the kids. We’re going to add this into the nighttime routine because that mad morning scramble was pretty much just status quo in our house last year. Because none of us needs to be quite that insane quite that early in the day, we’re going to make it happen the night before from now on.)

Plan Together
Finally, Nosal suggested that families take time to get kids’ input on household routines. Find out what they would like to have in place, and what would be helpful to them, and take their suggestions seriously. Routines are important, and might be more welcome than parents sometimes realize. “Because we’re so routine oriented in the classroom, parents might be surprised how well their kids do with routines,” Nosal notes. And when kids participate in creating their schedules, they may be more likely to adhere to them. (Last author’s note: I followed Nosal’s advice, and discovery abounded! I found out that one of my kids wants to get up early and read. Another wants to get up early enough to take a shower in the morning rather than at bedtime. Truly, revelations. I had no idea.)

Bottom line: you’ll help your kids go to school ready to learn if they’re well rested and calm. Fatigue and anxiety impede learning dramatically, and often result unintentionally. Focusing on reasonable, collaboratively created routines can make a surprisingly huge difference in family harmony and kids’ school experience. And please, share your thoughts for how to establish a good school routine in the comments.

Mom to Elias, Leo, and Henry, Jill Davidson is an active member of Providence’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization, where Elias is in fifth grade and Leo is in second. Jill works on education issues nationally as the Interim Executive Director of the Coalition of Essential Schools and can be reached at jill.davidson@gmail.com

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  • jill is so smart, and likes WIPEOUT. the advice here is helpful, reasonable, do-able, and i feel wiser just for having read it. thank you.

  • Thank you for this article. I learned the value of routine this summer, I found myself running late for work a few days in a row. The 20 minute commute to camp didn’t allow for forgotten sunscreen, towel and water bottle moments. The relaxed nature of summer made it easier for me to make the change.

    I want to make routine fun this school year, would love some suggestions.