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.

 

Play By Play

Here is something that kids should be doing more of:

Playing.

At school they need to double down on:

Recess.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that they should be eating ice cream for all three meals. I’m not an anarchist. Just thinking about developing brains.

Let’s pull back a little bit. Or zoom in. Whatever. You’ve seen those little announcements on the packaging of toys that claim their product is helping children to advance their motor skills, memory, hand-eye coordination, and what have you? Well, there’s some truth to that, potentially, in the same way that Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast (really! Can be!).

Without examining the veracity of any particular products, it has to be admitted that they do help kids develop if kids play with them. But just as the finger that points to the moon is not the moon, it is not the toy that provides the learning but the act of playing itself. In that sense, a rock’s as good as a Leappad for our purposes (a bonus is that if you throw a rock, it won’t break!).

Recently I’ve noticed a phenomenon at our house that illustrates this perfectly. It’s the noticing that new, not the phenomenon. The older girls, ten and twelve, continue to play with our set of wooden blocks as much as, if not more than, the younger ones. They have continued to be available, rather than put aside for more “age-appropriate” (this usually means “more electronic”) toys. So, they’ve just kept playing with ’em.

And, I believe, they continue to hone their spatial recognition and gross and fine motor skills just as much now, at their own level, as they did all those years ago when they first figured out how to stack them (and of course, immediately knock them down again).

Crucially, I think, there has never been any sense that the blocks are something that they could outgrow; that some toys were just “for babies.” They’re just another tool at their disposal.

By the same token, since the picture books are still on full display for the six and eight-year-olds, their older sisters continue to put them –new acquisitions and old favorites alike– in rotation along with their endless fantasy novels and 19th Century classics.

One of my (amazing) professors in the Education program at Western advocates for the use of picture books all the way through high school (and by extension college, given that she, you know, used them. In a college class). Once we get over the stigma of directing our attention to something that was made for younger people, their value and beauty are simply obvious.

 

Some Thoughts for MLK Day

My habit of listening to podcasts, while driving or while doing the dishes, is usually fruitful (in case you were wondering, I’m a longtime user of Stitcher). But sometimes I come across something that is truly striking. Appropriately for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I wanted to share two podcasts featuring journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on school desegregation.

In 2015, Hannah-Jones narrated a story for the long-running NPR program This American Life, entitled The Problem We All Live With. This episode, which has since aired again, focuses on an issue I had been unaware of, which is that efforts to desegregate public schools, which began with the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, have been largely abandoned in recent decades. According to the story, school desegregation peaked in the 1980s and has since fallen off dramatically. The result has been a return to conditions seen in schools prior to the decision, in which schools in low-income communities, and populated mostly by non-white students, have fewer resources, less able teachers and administrators, and as a consequence lower test scores and graduation rates. Hannah-Jones points out that the only factor that has been found to alleviate these problems–and did so with amazing effectiveness in the decades following desegregation–was integrated schools. When students from mixed ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are in school together, everyone benefits. So do the schools themselves, and the communities they serve (and arguably, society as a whole). I urge you to listen to the podcast.

I was reminded of this story by the latest episode of Fresh Air, featuring an interview with Hannah-Jones about her schooling choices for her own child. She wrote about this in an article for the New York Times Magazine, which is also well worth reading. She relates her experience as a parent witnessing the adamant resistance to the integration of the mostly Black and Latino school her daughter attends. The interview is worth a listen for a variety of reasons, but what really brought me up short was her explanation for why she decided to keep her daughter in the school rather than exercise her available privilege to place her elsewhere:

“The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

“And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say ‘This school is not good enough for my child’ and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

As a parent, I do find myself making choices for my children based on what I think will give them the “best” advantage. What Hannah-Jones is advocating for is simply to think about the needs of our kids in a broader, more big-picture way. What if giving our own children the best education means fighting for all children to do so? More importantly, how crucial is it to our children that their parents really live according to their values?

That’s the hard thing. I’m going to be thinking about this for a while. Happy MLK Day.

Parent as Accessory

As parents, we want to be able to talk to our children: to give advice, impart discipline, encourage and challenge, and teach them. As they become teenagers we may find that this is no longer as easy as it once was. We may even find that they don’t seem to want it. Our teenagers may become surly, evasive, and strangely quiet (at least around us). They may even seem to avoid conversation altogether. But recent research supports the notion that they still need us as much as ever.

There are a lot of resources for how to continue to talk to kids as they get older. One I can recommend highly is the book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. But as valuable as it is to continue to make the effort–sometimes meeting them more than halfway–it is especially helpful to just be…hanging around.

A recent article in the New York Times is entitled, charmingly, “What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents.”  It suggests that there is value in being present for our teenage children no matter what signals we may be getting from them. In the article, Lisa Damour writes:

“Many parents feel that their adolescents hardly need them anymore. Teenagers often come and go on their own schedules, sometimes rebuff our friendly questions about their days, and can give the impression that interacting with the family is an imposition that comes at the cost of connecting, digitally or otherwise, with friends.

So here’s a complaint one might not expect to hear from teenagers: They wish their parents were around more often.”

It has long been known that it is important to an adolescent’s well-being for parents to be home when they return from school, and to share meals together if at all possible (as long as you don’t ask, apparently, “How was school?“). But as Damour explains, when you are home together it can be enough to be a physical presence in the room.

“In other words, it’s great if you and your adolescent get along well with each other, but even if you don’t, your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.” Teenagers find comfort and safety in this presence, and if we are consistently around it is that much more likely that they will come to us when they need to.

In this, as in many other aspects, the emotional makeup of a teen is much like a toddler. Writes Damour, “Ideally, children use their parents as a safe and dependable base from which to explore the world and exert their autonomy. Indeed, studies tell us that securely attached toddlers quietly track their parents’ movements from room to room, even while carrying on with their own activities.”

So, it’s great to be a counselor or a wise elder or even a shoulder to lean on. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to just be an accessory. Who knows? Maybe eventually they’ll get curious and start pushing buttons.

Bored Games

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

Summer School

So, school is almost out. Summer is almost upon us. What are you going to do with your children now that they are home every day? Allow me to make a suggestion: start them in school.

Okay, let’s take a few deep breaths. I’ll take them with you. Ready? Now let me explain. What better time for your kids to learn than when they don’t have to go to school all day? If anything, all of the structure of their school day—all the moving from one place to another, all the sitting down and lining up and walking and standing and waiting, not to mention all of those other kids—has been in the way of their learning all along. Heck, even the teachers have been distracting them from their natural inclination to learn.

Don’t take it from me. Here’s what educator John Holt has to say about it, in his book Learning All The Time:

“I can sum up in five to seven words what I eventually learned as a teacher. The seven-word version is: Learning is not the product of teaching. The five-word version is: Teaching does not make learning. As I mentioned before, organized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what, and only because we teach them. This is not true. It is very close to one hundred percent false.”

What makes children learn, then? Having opportunities to do so. Having the time, space, and materials to gather information, observe their world, experiment, try out ideas, make things. And as a parent, you are the ideal person to provide these opportunities. Writes Holt:

“What adults can do for children is to make more and more of that world and the people in it accessible and transparent to them. The key word is access: to people, places, experiences, the places where we work, other places we go—cities, countries, streets, buildings. We can also make available tools, books, records, toys, and other resources. On the whole, kids are more interested in the things that adults really use than in the little things we buy especially for them. I mean, anyone who has seen little kids in the kitchen knows that they would rather play with the pots and pans than anything made by Fisher-Price or Lego or name whatever you will.”

So there you go: you can be the one to provide this access to learning. And Summer vacation is the best time to do it. You can take them outside: on neighborhood walks, to the park, to the swimming pool, to the river, to the beach, to the city. And you can provide their textbooks and visual aids and tools: at the library, at the museum. In the backyard, in the kitchen. In the garage.

School’s out! Now finally they can get down to some learning.

Can you tell me how to get to Problem-Solving Mode?

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts by Esther.

Knowing how to solve problems is a valuable, life-long skill. That may be the understatement of the year. Finding solutions to mechanical or physical problems is hard, but finding solutions to problems involving several people interacting and getting along with each other is really tough. That process is a major part of parenting, though.

Here are some suggested steps for problem-solving family life challenges.

(These are designed for school-age and older children–and for adults!–but the process can be modified to use with younger children.)

Part 1 By Yourself

1. Acknowledge to yourself what is going on with you: What is your physical state? (hungry, sleep-deprived, wound up, …) What are your feelings? (frustrated, worried, fearful, …) What are your fears? (I’m a terrible parent; My child will never be able to go to sleep without me, go to school, be self-supportive, . . .).

2. Ask yourself: How is this affecting me? Can I list specific, concrete ways that this is impacting my life? Is this blocking my ability to achieve my goals or meet my needs?

3. Respond to yourself empathetically—“I hear you” “It’s hard to deal with this. ” Help yourself calm down by deep breathing or physical exercise.

Part 2 With the Other(s) (spouse, child, etc.)

Establish a connection. Essentially this is saying or conveying without words “I’m available to listen—now or whenever you are ready to talk.”

4. Bring up the problem in a neutral way; for example, “We always seem to end up yelling at each other in the mornings. It’s upsetting to me and I think it bothers you, too. Can we talk about how we might be able to do things differently?”

5. Use empathetic listening. The goal is to listen for understanding, not weakness. Trust that the other person is not lying or trying to manipulate you, but being honest. You DO NOT need to agree with him/her, just to accept that this is his/her perception. Help the other person go through the process you just went through of identifying feelings and needs and calming down.

6. With the other person’s help (when possible), identify out loud (and in writing if desired): how s/he feels; his/her need(s); and what s/he would like to happen. It’s important that you are able to state these and have the other person say (or indicate) “Yes, that is what I feel, need, and want.”

6a. There may be lots of things. Pick only one to deal with right now. You can get back to the others later.

7. Now state your own feelings, needs, and what you would like to happen regarding the issue at hand. Do this as briefly as possible. Remember this is what you would like to happen, NOT what you insist upon happening. If appropriate, ask the other person to state your feelings, needs, and wants in a way that you agree is accurate.

8. Sit with this for a while together.

9. Brainstorm together—come up with a list of possible solutions (whacky and totally unrealistic ones encouraged to get the creative juices flowing) and write them down.

10. Evaluate those solutions. Consider any other relevant factors and realities: developmental stage, temperament, safety, affordability, time, health, fairness, family rules, laws, moral considerations, etc.

11. Select one(s) that meets both your needs. Be open to change. You both have veto power over any of the suggestions and you both need to agree on the solution.

12. Be as specific as possible about your agreed-upon solution—when, where, what, and who.

13. Put it into practice for a specified amount of time. Then follow up with each other—how is it working out? How are you feeling now? Make adjustments as needed.

14. Problem Solved! Celebrate successes!

Repeat as often as necessary.

 

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

Breaking Down the Break

So, the kids are home from school. How is that going?

We are taking a break from homeschooling as well, so we’re all home and in full Winter Break mode. Add up all that family time, the change in routines, and the excitement of the impending holiday, and the results can be unpredictable, to say the least. What can we do to ensure that these days at home go as well as they can?

  1. Keep the routines that you can. It is tempting to let everyone (including ourselves) sleep in, and that can be nice, for sure. But if your children are accustomed to the way the morning goes in getting up and getting ready for school, pushing the day back can be disruptive. We try to keep the structure of the day intact as much as possible, sticking to predictable mealtimes, bedtimes, chores, daily activities, and downtimes in order to keep things predictable. The more things that they can anticipate happening in the usual way, the more comforted and settled they will feel.
  2. Pace yourselves. Just because we are faced with all this unstructured time does not mean that we should try to fill it with activities. Even the “fun” can be overwhelming without allowing for the quiet periods we all need in order to recharge. The adults will need to do this too, and if you are used to having time to yourself during the day, be sure to allow for that as well.
  3. Prioritize the holiday stuff. Every family has its own traditions and the children especially will delight in those activities—decorating the house, baking, taking in the lights around town—that they associate with this time of year. But I’ve found that trying to force it can be more stressful than it is worth. One of our favorite traditions has been to visit a tree farm to select a tree and cut it down. This year, however, due to a variety of factors (the extra soggy weather, a general lack of funds, and a general lack of tree space), we decided to scale back on that particular adventure. We stopped at a tree lot in town and took home a smaller and cheaper (but completely charming) tree, a process that took ten minutes instead of most of an afternoon.
  4. Get outside if you can. Especially if the kids are spending more idle time at home, and adjusting to the slower pace away from school, it is all the more important to spend time walking, hiking, and moving around out of doors. We have been taking advantage of those brief windows of non-rain.
  5. Transition back to school time. If we have been keeping a predictable schedule and balancing periods of activity with downtime, this will be easier to manage. Going back to school at the end of the break won’t be as much of a jolt if everyone knows what to expect.
  6. Be patient with each other, and with yourself. Everyone in the family is dealing with changes, and even pleasant changes can be difficult. If we remember that everyone has to adjust on both ends of the break, we might avoid the feeling of desperation that comes with having everyone just…around for so many days. Also, keep in mind that it’s normal for kids and adults to feel a bit of a crash when all the excitement is over. Anticipating that is a job of parenting, it’s true. But the easier and more predictable it is for our children the saner we will be.

Happy holidays!