Easing into the school year

Here we are again at the start of a new school year. Equal parts excitement for the growth that will happen over this next school year and wistful wishes that summer could just go on and on.

My youngest starts high school this fall. So for the first time in many years we have just one school calendar on the wall. It’s a little unsettling. That single calendar is lulling me into the expectation that it will be smooth sailing.

But I know there will be bumps in the road, even though we are managing just two kids and one school. 

Getting back into a routine will help us all minimize those bumps.

Having a consistent routine helps kids -and their parents – build healthy habits, establish reasonable expectations, and feel secure knowing what comes next. Here are few ways to help ease into the school routine.

How to make back to school easier

Start off with flexible expectations.

It’s tempting to want to put together a game plan for the new year and expect everyone to hop on board with it immediately. But a new school year comes with lots of changes for your kiddo – new teacher, new classroom, maybe even a different school building. They’ll be working hard all day adjusting to new routines at school and are likely to come home exhausted. They may need time to adjust over the first couple of weeks. Keeping after school simple can go a long way to helping tired kids. Try not to schedule appointments during these early weeks. A few days of just coming home and hanging out might help with over-stimulation.

Do what you can the night before.

Make mornings a little less of a hustle by choosing clothes and packing lunches before bed. With those decisions made, the morning might have a little less chaos as everyone prepares for the day. 

Keep breakfast simple.

It’s ok to find a breakfast menu that works for everyone and use it daily. While you may want to keep some variety in the lunch and dinner menu, providing the same breakfast each day eliminates the need for choices and decisions. The fewer decisions there are to make in the morning, the easier it is going to be to get out the door.

Find a rhythm that works for your family.

Each one of us is unique. Family members all have different interests, attitudes, and responses to shared experiences. What works for one family may not work for another. Within your family, find a rhythm of living and working together that meets the needs of each individual. When individual needs are met it is easier to cooperate, accommodate, and support each other. This goes for kids, too. Arriving home together at dinner time, starving from a long afternoon of activities, some families will jump into dinner prep to get that meal on the table ASAP. Others might find it works better for everyone if there is some snacking as soon as they get home, with dinner served later in the evening at a more leisurely pace. Do what works for the people you live with. 

Benefits of a routine

Whatever you choose, have a routine that is predictable, so that everyone knows what to expect. Knowing what comes next, when things get done, and what is expected of them helps smooth out the bumps of family life. Predictability supports social-emotional well-being and builds self-confidence. Repetition helps children build skills. Do what you can to make each day as predictable as possible. It will reduce stress and anxiety, making for a happier family life.

Here’s to a smooth transition into the school year for all our families!

Getting Ready for Kindergarten

There’s nothing like the first day of kindergarten – for parents and their kiddos. It is the start of the public school journey for many families. It’s a momentous occasion even for students who continue their education in the same school where they’ve experienced a pre-school program. 

Kindergarteners are moving out of their pre-school years and into childhood, where their education will be a  primary focus for many years to come.

As parents, we are excited for them and a little weepy that our little ones are spreading their wings in an environment without us. 

They, too, can be both eager to be a ‘big school kid’ and nervous to be away from the security of home and their previous routine.

Here are a few tips for making the transition to kindergarten easier for everyone.

Six strategies for kindergarten readiness

– 1 Make room for the emotions

Transitioning to kindergarten is a big step for everyone, children and parents alike. It’s ok to be anxious, excited, and emotional. Invite your soon-to-be-kindergartener to share their feelings. Acknowledge those feelings and share a little of your own. Keep the conversation positive and upbeat while letting them know it’s ok to have big feelings. End the conversation on a positive note, reminding them of all the fun things they will do at school (meet new friends, play on the playground, try new things.) 

– 2 Get organized the night before

Make the mornings easier by laying out clothes and packing lunches the night before. Help your child be independent when dressing by providing clothes they can get on and off without your help. It is also a good idea to Include extra clothes in their school backpack, just in case they need a spare during the day..

– 3 Check out the school playground

If you have access, viisit the school playground a few times before school starts. This will help your kindergartener become familiar with the space and feel more comfortable that first week of school.

– 4 Choose lunch containers they can manage alone

Make sure they can open and close containers you send to school with them – their water bottle, lunch box, and food containers. In the days before school starts give them lunch at home in their school lunch containers a few times so they have a chance to practice. If they struggle, find containers that are easier for them to use.

-5 Establish a school day morning routine

Maintain a regular routine on school mornings. Decide whether you’ll eat breakfast or dress first, then make sure you follow the plan. Knowing the order that things will be done and maintaining consistency helps everyone be ready when it’s time to head out the door.

– 6 Encourage independence in toileting at home and in public restrooms

They’ll be expected to independently use the bathroom at school. Let your child practice being independent in the bathroom, both at home and when you’re out and about. When you visit a public restroom, let them go into the stall alone and take care of their own personal needs without your help. 

Kindergarten is designed to help them learn how to be away from home, take direction from other adults, and expand their circle of friends. It’s natural to feel they are too young and inexperienced on that first day of school. But before you know it you’ll be wondering when they got so grown up and experienced.

For more ideas to support kindergarten readiness, check out these Head Start activities.

 

Fostering Resilience in teens

The social isolation we experienced during 2020 and 2021 was hard for everyone. We missed extended family gatherings when we stayed at home with our immediate family members. We did not host or attend parties with our friends. We took to Zoom to ‘visit’ with people who didn’t live with us.  It was isolating and often lonely.

Social isolation is the opposite of what typically happens in adolescence.

Social growth is a major component of the teen years. Teenagers naturally choose to spend more time with peers and adults outside their family as they start to figure out how they fit into the larger community beyond their family. 

Learning who they are and how they want to fit in is an important part of adolescence growth.

Covid protocols stymied this natural growth and development for many adolescents.

Newport Healthcare, a national network of programs for young adults and teens, observed, “Over the last year and a half, the pandemic has exponentially increased the time this age group spends online while limiting their in-person social interaction. The resulting loneliness is exacerbating or catalyzing depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts—which in turn leads to more loneliness. That’s because the symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as low self-esteem and low energy, often prevent young people from reaching out to others and engaging in social activities.”

How do we help socially isolated teens? 

But there are ways to help teens overcome the loneliness. 

Newport Healthcare offers these evidence-based ways to reduce loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood, and thus lower the risk of mental health issues. 

  1. Limit social media use. The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology reports that cutting down on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat use leads to significant reductions in loneliness and depression, in as few as three weeks.
  2. Spend time volunteering. Research shows that doing things for others offers mental and physical health benefits and helps people feel less isolated and alone.
  3. Cultivate authentic connections. Frequent, meaningful in-person interactions are proven to reduce loneliness. Real-life friendships may need a bit more tending to than virtual ones, but the emotional payoff is worth it. 
  4. Adopt a pet. Multiple studies, including one done during the pandemic, show that interaction with household pets reduces isolation and increases feelings of connection.
  5. Exercise. A review study found that physical activity in social settings—like sports or a hiking club—helps people feel more connected and enhances well-being.
  6. Get enough sleep. A 2018 study in the journal Nature found that sleep loss is significantly associated with social withdrawal and loneliness. People with lower sleep quality were less likely to engage with others and more likely to feel lonely.
  7. Visit a therapist. Working with a mental health professional can help teens and young adults pinpoint causes of loneliness, such as social anxiety or lack of self-esteem, and learn strategies for overcoming isolation.

Here in the Willamette Valley, the topic of social isolation and building resilience in youth will be the focus of this year’s Partners in Health Summit. The health summit is free and open to the public. 

Join us on August 19th from 9am – 3pm.  Keynote speaker Dr. Carolyn Aldwin will present “Building Resilience, Well Being and Mental Health”. Additional workshops will focus on youth wellness and resilience and the health impacts of loneliness and social isolation. Click here for details.

Resources for LGBTQ+ youth and their families

Helping our children navigate romantic relationships and sexual identity as they reach adulthood can be hard on parents. Parenting a teen who faces the unique challenges of LGBTQ youth adds another layer of complexity to the mix.

In an article titled Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Youth, Johns Hopkins provides a helpful resource for parents as they support their LGBTQ youth. Among their suggestions: maintain healthy dialogue with your teen and stay connected with their school, because identifying as LGBTQ+ can be isolating for youth.

Recognizing the additional difficulty of rural living, Project Bravery was founded in 2020.

Project Bravery was established to address the isolation, social rejection, and lack of resources available to rural LGBTQIA2S+ youth.

A program of the Olalla Center, a 501(c)3, non-profit organization based in Lincoln County, Oregon, Project Bravery works to create safe spaces, promote visibility and acceptance, build equitable resources, and strengthen the community with courage and compassion.

Says program director Elijah Stucki, “We believe all people are stronger with the support of a caring community, culturally appreciative services, and a connection to the natural world.”

Project Bravery offers a resource center and safe space for LGBTQ+ youth ages 14-24 in Lincoln County, OR.

Regular opportunities to join other LGBTQ+ youth in community building activities are offered. In addition, counseling with a licensed therapist is available to youth and their families.

For over 40 years, Olalla Center has operated on the core philosophy that you cannot have good health without a good community. As such, they focused their efforts not just on individuals and their families, but on the idea of village-building; creating social supports to help ensure life wellness.

Project Bravery is also committed to advancing LGBTQIA2S+ health equity, providing public outreach and education, and building strong collaborative partnerships to address the needs of the LGBTQIA2S+ community in Lincoln County and across the region.

Learn more on the Project Bravery page of the Olalla Center website at Olalla Center Project Bravery.

 

The Summer Slowdown: the Benefits of boredom

Are you hearing “I’m bored!” from your kids now that school is out and summer stretches before us? How do you respond?

According to an article in Forbes magazine, Neuroscientist Alicia Walf, a researcher in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says it’s critical for brain health to let yourself be bored from time to time. 

“Boredom can actually foster creative ideas, refilling your dwindling reservoir, replenishing your work mojo and providing an incubation period for embryonic work ideas to hatch. 

In those moments that might seem boring, empty and needless, strategies and solutions that have been there all along in some embryonic form are given space and come to life. And your brain gets a much needed rest when we’re not working it too hard.”

The Forbes article focuses on the benefits of downtime for adults, but the same is true for children.

We parents are prone to filling up our children’s day with activities and new experiences. We worry that having nothing to do will lead to misbehavior.

Kids who are used to having their days full of outings, camp, and adult-directed activities do need a little time to adjust to “doing nothing”. They may lack experience having periods of time where nothing is planned and their own ingenuity is needed. 

That adjustment period can be tough – on kids and their parents. But given a little bit of time, kids will also discover the gifts of boredom and the creativity that comes from having “nothing” to do.

As parents, we can simultaneously assure their safety by never being far away, while allowing them to develop their creativity by not structuring every minute of the day.  

Well into their elementary years we had what I called ‘rest time’ in the afternoon. Though they no longer napped, they were expected to spend a quiet hour in their rooms. We all recharged during that hour and they spent that time wherever their imaginations took them. 

Psychology Today offers this on the benefits of boredom for children: “The ability to focus and self-regulate is correlated with the ability to handle boredom. Learning to endure boredom at a young age is great preparation for developing self-control skills (regulating one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions).”

In addition to developing self-regulation skills, some other benefits of boredom include:

-Improved mental health

-Increased creativity

-Motivation to seek new ideas

-Motivation to pursue new goals

So next time you hear “I’m bored”, take your time rushing in to fix it – let them experience some of those benefits of a little boredom. Before long their creativity just may kick in.

It’s summer: who needs routines?

Daily  routines help reduce stress for parents and help children feel safe when they can  anticipate and predict what will happen next. The school year provides a predictable routine for many families. But what happens when school ends for the summer?

At our house we’ve been counting down the days to summer for weeks, looking forward to no more alarm clocks, no more rushed breakfasts or scrambling to make a lunch. We are looking having nowhere to be first thing in the morning.

Are you breathing a sigh of relief or anxiously eyeing the calendar wondering how to fill the weeks ahead? It’s a big change for us all.

Kids feel the change, too. For many, losing the routine that the school year provides can be unsettling. 

Maintaining a routine benefits everyone in the family. The Australian Parenting Website offers this, “Daily routines help family life run more smoothly. They also help families enjoy more time together. Routines help children feel safe, develop life skills and build healthy habits. Routines help parents feel organised, reduce stress, and find time for enjoyable activities.”

This is true even in the summer, when the school day routine is replaced with more family time, more travel, and opportunities for new experiences and activities.

What makes a good routine? 

Australianparenting.net.au says, “A good routine is one that suits your family. It also has three key features:

It is well planned. In a good routine, everyone understands their roles, knows what they need to do and sees their roles as reasonable and fair. For example, your children know that they take turns with washing up and drying up each night after dinner. As children get older, they can have a say in planning routines.

It is a regular part of daily life. Good routines become part of everyday family life. For example, you might all look forward to Sunday night barbecues with your children’s grandparents.

It’s predictable. In a good routine, things happen in the same order each time. Everyone knows what to expect for the day. For example, you always wash school uniforms on the weekend, so you know they’ll be ready for Monday morning.

Your summer routine doesn’t have to look exactly like the school year routine did. But having a consistent, predictable rhythm to each day helps everyone feel safe and secure and reduces stress for all.

A regular sequence of events to start the day that includes dressing, eating breakfast, and connecting with each other, can seque into a flexible free time that allows for a variety of activities for the morning or the whole day. 

Regrouping in the afternoon, with a routine for lunch, quiet time, and individual interests let’s everyone know that after new experiences or activities there will be some individual down time.

The extended sunshine of summer can make bedtime a challenge for young children. Despite busy days and being physically tired, with the sun still in the sky, they may have a hard time recognizing betime as it approaches. Ending the day with a regular routine for transitioning to bedtime can help young bodies know it’s time for sleep.

Summer is an opportunity to loosen up, but even in the carefree days of summer a predictable family routine can help make everyone’s day a little bit easier.

Helping Kids Through Hard Things

Watching the news from Uvalde, Texas last week was hard. Incomprehensible events can be difficult to process for adults – and talking about them with kids is not easy. Here are a few tips from the experts for helping kids handle difficult news.

Age-appropriate support and responses

0-7 Your kids will look to you to see how you are reacting. Staying calm and rational helps them do the same. Turn off the TV and keep your young children away from the news. This includes avoiding adult conversation about the event while children are in the room.

Even very young children, who appear to be busy doing something else, can often be more aware of what they are hearing in the background than you realize. 

Says one young mother, “He was two and I thought he wasn’t paying attention as I listened to NPR in the room with him. Suddenly he says, “They said puzzle. I have a puzzle.” It was at that moment she realized that even though he was just two, he was hearing and being affected by the news in the background.

Keeping children away from media broadcasts is valuable in two ways. 

It gives parents time to fully understand what has happened, process their own emotions about it, and make decisions about how to answer questions their children will have. 

It also protects them from breaking news, which can contain incomplete or inaccurate information. 

When you have all the facts and have had time to think through your own response, you are better prepared to help their children cope.

Children want to know they are safe and cared for. When talking with them about difficult news stories, encourage them to talk about their fears. Reassure them that you are taking care of them and will keep them safe.

7-12 Older children continue to need reassurance that they are cared for and protected. Consider their maturity level when deciding how to talk about frightening news. Many children of this age can handle hard topics, but if your child is sensitive, consider following the advice for younger children – turn off the news and provide reassurance that they are safe with you.

Common Sense Media offers the following advice for this age group, “Talk about — and filter — news coverage. You might explain that even news programs compete for viewers, which sometimes affects content decisions. If you let your kids use the internet, go online with them. Some of the pictures posted are simply grisly. Monitor where your kids are going, and set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals.”

12 and up Teenagers will likely be exposed to the news in much the same way you hare – through their social networks or news stories that come across the media they are consuming. 

Since they will likely have heard about it independently, check in with them – invite them to express themselves and share their reaction to the news. Listen actively and address their concerns without minimizing or dismissing them. Take the opportunity to provide your take on things.

Teens may be eager to take action. Research ways you can do this together. Write letters to elected officials, attend peaceful rallys or protests, or make donations to support causes you believe in. Taking action can help reduce a child’s anxiety. 

Take care of yourself

As you work through your own emotions about the event, remember to take care of yourself as well. Take regular breaks from your exposure to media coverage to avoid becoming overwhelmed. 

Allow yourself time to do things you enjoy and reduce anxiety by keeping up with your normal routine, which will help you process both the emotional and physical effects of traumatic news events.

Traumatic events, even those far from home, affect us all. Give yourself and your children time and space to process the emotions that come up. A little extra togetherness, doing something you both love, could be just the thing. 

 

Gardening with Kids

The weather is finally (!) starting to warm up, which means it’s finally time to start your summer garden here in the Pacific Northwest. While cool weather vegetables, like snap peas, lettuce, kale, and chard can be started as early as mid-March, now we can start  warm weather vegetables like peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and squash.

The peas that we planted in early April have been languishing through all this cold wet weather, but they are still hanging on. Last week we spread some lettuce seeds, and they’ve sprouted this week. It’s made me excited about the summer garden.

Gardening is a delightful activity to share with kids, young and old alike. There are so many benefits to having a family backyard garden. It gets you out in the fresh air and sunshine and is an activity that can include all ages.

Here are a few tips to make it fun for everyone.

Begin with soil prep

Helping prepare the soil for planting means dirt and shovels and digging! What fun! If you work in raised beds, little ones will have an easier time knowing where their feet can go (outside the garden bed) and where their shovels go (inside!). It’s better not to walk  on the prepared soil, as that makes it harder for seeds to sprout. Seeds like the soil slightly tamped down, but not compacted. If you’re working in a garden with rows and paths, using straw to mark the paths for walking can be helpful for kids.

Start with quick to germinate crops

Choose seeds that are quick to sprout to maintain interest in the process. Green beans are one of the quickest to sprout and easy to care for. If you choose a bush variety there is no need to build a lattice to support vines.  But if a trellis is needed, you can easily make one with garden stakes and some twine. Tie the top ends of four stakes together using twine. Position the bottom ends about three feet apart, pushing them down into the prepared soil, then wrap the twine in a spiral on the outside of the stakes to form a trellis for the growing plants. Plant the seeds between the stakes, so plants grow up the twine to the top.

Create a garden log

Invite older kids to keep track of the garden’s progress with a daily log. They can record what was planted and when. You can also track daily temperatures, rainfall, and sunshine. Note when each crop sprouts. They can even measure growth rates and record flowering and harvest dates, for a full picture of how long it takes for a vegetable to go from seed to the table. Next year, your garden log will help you know when to start seeds and when to expect produce as the garden grows.

Don’t forget the flowers

I have one kiddo who loves to plant flower seeds and watch them grow and bloom. Marigolds are great at helping keep pests away from vegetable plants, so we often have marigolds at the end of each row, or around the edges of a raised bed.

Kids who participate in growing vegetables in a garden are often more willing to try new foods and eat what they have grown. 

Fresh vegetables, better eaters, and better nutrition – all brought to you by your backyard garden.

Board Games That Secretly Educate

April sure was a wet one! If you were anything like me, you were looking for ideas for yet another day indoors. We played a LOT of board games in April. 

That got me thinking about the games we played when these teens were younger. Not only is playing games fun but there is also a lot of great learning involved when you gather together for family game time.

Here are a few of my favorites, which are fun for parents, fun for kids, and a sneaky way to build on language, numeracy, geography skills, and more.

Bingo

Bingo is a great option for everyone. As soon as your preschooler is recognizing numbers and letters they can manage their own board. At our house, we invite early learners to help with calling out the numbers, giving them practice in identifying the letters and numbers. In addition to letter and number recognition, Bingo offers practice in fine motor skills and sequencing. 

Racko

Another great game for number recognition, Racko takes it up a notch and requires players to practice their counting skills. Kids who are skip-counting at school will love this game, where the goal is to be the first one to exchange randomly dealt cards for ones that create a rack that goes from lowest to highest. Players will work with numbers from 1 to 60 and practice waiting for their turn.

Uno

Uno is a great game for early learners, helping them practice color matching, number matching, and taking turns. If your players are really young, teaming up with an adult can keep the game fun for everyone. The adult on the team can help read the action cards while letting the child choose the cards to play when it is their turn.

Carcasonne

At first glance, this may not seem like a game suited for preschoolers, but our family has loved this game from the time my youngest was four years old. When they were younger we eliminated the scoring and competition, instead working cooperatively to build long roads and big cities. (I can’t take credit for this strategy. It evolved naturally out of my son’s natural inclination to help others. But it is a great way to play with preschoolers.)  The game is great for practicing pattern matching, as you must match the features on each side of your tile that connects to another tile. As the kids get older you can add more complexity, eventually adding actual scoring and strategy.

Ticket to Ride

Ticket to Ride takes the learning up a level, offering actual geography and language lessons. There are a number of different versions available, which provide lots of opportunities to spend time with maps and inadvertently learn the names of cities and harbors around the world. We had so much fun introducing some Japanese exchange students to Ticket to Ride that we sent our United States version home with them. These days we primarily play the Rails and Sails version, which is a world map and involves boats as well as trains. Like many of the best games, Ticket to Ride can grow with your family. Start with a simplified version for younger children and expand in complexity as they mature.

Power Grid

This one is definitely for kids who have reached double digits. It took us a long time to learn how to play, but once we figured it out, we discovered that this is a game that teaches not just gameplay and strategy, but also energy economics. Played on a board with a number of different cities represented, the object is to build and power the most cities. To do so, you must bid on power plants and acquire the raw materials to power your plants. As the game goes on, the value of the raw materials (and the power plants) shifts, creating the need to balance expansion with power plant upgrades. It took us a while to learn it well enough to enjoy it, but it was worth the effort.

How about you?

Does your family have a favorite game? Share with us in the comments below!

Cooking with kids

In the Montessori preschool classroom, an entire section of the curriculum is devoted to “Practical Life”. Practical Life activities embrace care of oneself and care for the environment. It includes things like learning to lace and tie shoes, close a door quietly, clean a table, sweep the floor, and sew a button. Preparing food for snack is also part of the practical life curriculum in the classroom. 

Even the youngest toddler enjoys activities involving food preparation. Toddlers can peel and slice bananas, stir together the ingredients for biscuits, and knead and shape them (think edible playdough!). They can help peel and separate oranges and hull strawberries.

Including children in meal prep is a wonderful way to combine time together with practical learning and skill development. Here’s how to make the experience fun for everyone.

Slow Down and Let Go

Remember that every child is still developing fine motor skills. Let go of any expectations that every step of the process will be executed quickly or neatly. Expect a little more mess and adjust the time needed for prep. Allow your child to go at their own pace, which may be much slower than doing it yourself. Give yourselves time to stop and clean up as you go along. 

Remind yourself that practice is the path to improvement. Let them try. Each time they will get better and faster, but in the beginning, we need to allow for the mishaps of early experience with a task. Not all the flour will end up in the bowl. Some of the eggshells will end up in the bowl. Carrots won’t be as neatly peeled as you might have done. Diced may look more like chopped. The imperfections won’t matter to the finished dish and there is value in providing the opportunity to learn a new skill or practice a familiar one

Prepare the workspace

Before you begin working together, get organized. If you are cooking with 2-4 year olds, you may choose to measure out the ingredients ahead of time. On the other hand, letting them help gather supplies and ingredients is good practice in following directions, provided items are stored on low shelves that are accessible to small people.

Lay out a large plastic cutting board to work on, so that it can be lifted and carried to the sink for cleaning. Have appropriate utensils at hand. Soft foods, like bananas and strawberries, can be safely cut by young children with specially designed knives that are not sharp. Smaller spoons and whisks can also help smaller children be more successful.

Don’t Show and Tell

Talking as you are demonstrating requires the child to simultaneously process both what they are seeing and what they are hearing. Instead, when helping your child do a new task, take a tip from the Montessori classroom and separate the telling from the showing. Begin by saying what you are going to show them, without any movement. 

Then show them slowly and carefully how to do it, without speaking. This allows them to focus on watching what you are doing and eliminates the need to also process what they are hearing. This video from Viola Montessori is a great example of what this looks like.

Cooking together provides children with practical skills they will use for a lifetime. By the time they are tweens, they will have the experience to prepare meals for themselves and their family. 

Enjoy your time together in the kitchen! Leave a comment and let us know how it goes.