For a kid, going from a hazy, lazy summer where the only thing she has on her schedule is scratching a mosquito bite (and even then only if she feels like it!) to having to rise with the sun, look remotely human, and pay attention all day can be a major shock. But there are ways you can make things go more smoothly, starting right now.
Reset Her Body Clock
Odds are, she's been trapping toads until late into the evening and then sleeping in. Easing her back to a school-year schedule will ensure that she shows up bright-eyed, if not bushy-tailed, says Rafael Pelayo, M.D., a pediatric sleep specialist at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic in Redwood City, CA. Here's how:
Spin Sleep "You have to get the kids on board," says Dr. Pelayo. If she sees going to bed as a punishment or a bummer, she's going to avoid it. But if she understands that sleep is good for her, just as exercise is, she may resist less. "Talk about it like 'It's not that you have to go to sleep, but that you get to go to sleep.'" It also helps to tell her that you're going to be resetting your schedule, too, and have only incredibly boring stuff -- cleaning the bathroom, discussing health care reform with her father -- planned for the evening. "That way, the kid doesn't feel punished. It's the whole family getting ready."
Do the Math Calculate the hour at which she'll need to get up in order to get to school on time (allowing a generous cushion for chaos) and count backward nine or so hours. That's her "falling-asleep time" once school starts, says Dr. Pelayo. Her bedtime might be 10 or 20 minutes before that.
Shift her To-Bed and Wake-Up Times If she's been going to bed too late, beginning two weeks before school starts, move her bedtime up about 20 minutes every three or so days. "You cannot expect a kid who's been staying up until eleven to go to bed at nine all at once," says Dr. Pelayo. "She's just going to get frustrated and lie awake." This change also means that exciting activities like TV watching and texting friends have to end earlier in the evening so your kid has time to wind down. Also, from the very first day you start shifting her bedtime, start rousing her at the time she'll need to get up for school so she'll tire earlier at night.
Make Getting Up Worth It Dr. Pelayo recommends that, after you flip on the light and open the bedroom shades to let in the brightest sun possible, you let your kid play a video game or watch TV first thing in the morning -- at least for a few days. "It may sound like blasphemy, but think about it: Waking up is biological. Getting out of bed, on the other hand, is volitional." In other words, give her some incentive. By the start of school, her body will be in the habit of getting up earlier.
Don't Force It On the night before school starts, your child might be too hopped-up to get to bed on time. "It's not a big deal for one night," says Dr. Pelayo; her excitement will fuel her that first day. Saying something like "You have to go to sleep because tomorrow is the first day of school" will only add to the pressure. "You can't force yourself to fall asleep," he says.
Get a Workplace that Works
Just as nature will reclaim an abandoned property by engulfing it in spooky trees and tall grass, your child's desk, if you can even see it, is by now probably home to toys, trophies, discarded clothing, and artwork that's just short of being good enough for refrigerator display. Not exactly a place that encourages focus. The best way to set up your child's homework space? Let him do it, says Marcella Moran, an educational consultant and coauthor of Organizing the Disorganized Child. "Parents tend to organize their kids based on their own organization style," says Moran. "That works for you, but it may not work for your child."
That doesn't mean, though, that you can't help your kid discover his perfect, intuitive workspace. After the desk is cleared, have him sit down at it. Ask him to close his eyes and name the essential items he needs to do his homework. (These may include pens, books, a calculator, a computer, and even a drink or snack. Some kids work well with an iPod playing soft music.) Then have him place his hand where he'd think to grab the item. Wherever it is he reaches, that's where that object should live. Repeat this process with all the essentials. (Some kids might do this better with their eyes open, and that's fine.) Voila! The perfect setup for your child to work efficiently.
Deal With "I Don't Want to Go to School!"
Unless you homeschool, there's no question your kid has to be backpack-on, lunch-box-in-hand ready on day one. Still, replying "You have to go, or Mommy and Daddy will go to jail," while true, isn't ideal. Ask him exactly what it is about school that's eating at him, advises Ruth Peters, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Clearwater, FL, and don't accept "Everything" as an answer. Probe gently, and depending on what he says, here's how to help him wrap his mind around the fact that September is just around the corner.
If what he means is: I don't want summer to end. Well, who can blame him? "But help put that in perspective," says Peters. "Dreading the end of a good thing doesn't mean that school is a bad thing." A reminder of the aspects of school that he adored last year -- friends, clubs, a particular subject -- should do it.
If what he means is: I've heard older kids say school is not cool. You should be able to ferret this out pretty easily. Then a quick "Are you kidding? What's not cool about meeting new people and learning new things?" should do it for a kindergartner or first-grader. To an older kid, you might say, "Do you really dislike school, all day, every day?" If it's fear of seeming uncool, he will probably be able to name some aspects of school he enjoys, and you can just remind him that he doesn't have to pretend to dislike something just to fit in.
If what he means is: I'm afraid of the work. Reassure him that the first six weeks of school is always a catch-up time, says Peters, and that when the pace picks up, you'll do whatever he needs to support him. "You can always get a tutor to help out," adds Peters, who points out that a high school student will often do it for little money. But watch your language here. "You want to empathize about the fact that certain things may be hard," she says, without making the problem seem insurmountable. So avoid saying something like "Yeah, none of us Spunkmeyers is good at math -- you got the gene!" Instead, try "Yes, math can be tough. But we'll figure it out one way or another."
If what he means is: I'm worried I'll have no friends/be bullied/have to eat lunch alone. Social worries are huge for kids and can cause a lot of anxiety about the start of school. "If something happened last year, they're probably thinking that more of the same is going to happen," says Peters. There's a lot you can do, though. Find out before his first day if his friends are going to be in his class, and if they're not, prepare him for that by talking over whom he can eat lunch with and making plans for after school. See if you can have a late-summer playdate to reconnect him with some of the kids he likes, or even arrange to have breakfast on the first day of school with his best friend and his best friend's mom. The more he knows about what's coming up, the better he'll feel.
Not Least: Meet the Teacher!
In the week before school starts -- after that, things will be madness -- make contact either in person or via e-mail and introduce yourself. You can let her know if your child has any particular sensitivities or if he or she needs special accommodations. Plus, it'll start off your relationship on a positive note.
Stephanie Dolgoff is Parenting's editor-at-large. Her blog is Formerlyhot.com.