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5 Tips for a Successful Start to the New School Year

By Catherine Schwartz, MA, OTR/L

As a parent of young children, I know how challenging adjusting to the start of a new school year can be, especially after a long and relaxing summer break. As a practitioner who is supporting families as a clinic-based therapist or supporting teachers as a school-based service provider, there are so many wonderful resources available to help navigate this sometimes-difficult period, however all of the information can often be overwhelming. In this blog we have done our best to simplify this advice by providing our top 5 tips for a smooth and successful start to the school year! Hopefully you also find these ideas helpful and can keep these suggestions in mind to help support the parents and teachers who are with the children we work with on a daily basis - and we would love to hear from you in the comments section for more strategies that have worked for you!

1. Establish School Routines

One of the best things parents and teachers can do at the beginning of any transition time is work on establishing routines. Routines are helpful for children because they are predictable, comfortable, and help everyone know their roles. It can take days and even weeks to establish new routines, but consistency is key. Routines also provide a great foundation for setting boundaries. For example, a child’s allotted screen time for the day may be after breakfast and before the bus comes. If this is a clear and consistent part of their routine, it may help limit future quarrels about screen time after school. Routines should be specific enough to include a number of steps. However, it is recommended to be conscious of how many overall steps there are so as to not be overwhelming (i.e. getting dressed could be a single step versus individual steps of putting on pants, socks, shirt, etc).

Once predictable routines are established it becomes easier to talk about changes or disruptions in the routine. Children often do better with these disruptions when they are intertwined between familiarity. For example, dad always drops the child off at school, but on a given day the neighbor will be giving them a ride instead or at school, there will be an assembly that day and the teacher lets the students know when it will be and what will be missed. Let them know what parts of the day will be the same and which will be different. Try to give children a heads up to this disruption in advance as well, especially if they tend to be more anxious about changes in routine.

If the child cannot read, visual schedules tend to work great! Visual schedules can be a simple white board with drawings, or a Velcro strip. There are many options available online and a quick search of “visual schedule for kids'' will reveal many wonderful options! In the home environment, these visual schedules are not only great for morning routines to get out the door, but also for after school routines and bedtime as well. At school, having a visual schedule on the board to reference daily is extremely helpful. Time timers can also be a wonderful visual tool for children to visually see the time ticking down to understand how much time they have to complete different tasks.

2. Decompress After School

School days are long and often exhausting for children. This can be especially true for small children who aren’t used to the rigor and structure of a full day of school. Parents, remember to set realistic expectations for children when they get home from school. Children may benefit from some unstructured playtime or quiet time before they are ready to take on the rest of their day. They may also need some extra patience regarding emotional regulation. For many children, “holding it together” all day is mentally exhausting and they may simply need a safe space to let their emotions out. Encouraging them to label and talk through their emotions/experiences of the day is a great routine and habit to form. Punishing these outlets may close off future communication. Remember that back-to-school time is an adjustment for everyone and sometimes a little grace goes a long way. This is the same for teachers and school-based therapists! We are also adjusting to a full day of work and being our best. It is important to take time to decompress as well, whether that be with exercise, meditation, listening to music, or if you’re a parent, spending some play time with your kids.

3. Check Backpack Ergonomics

Have you thought much about kid’s backpacks this fall? It may not be a bad idea! Our friends at the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) have so many great resources for thinking about backpack ergonomics, including their own backpack guide titled, “1, 2, 3’s of Basic Backpack Wearing”. Their easy-to-follow guide gives some wonderful tips broken into three simple steps.

  1. Pack It

    1. It is recommended to use different pockets and compartments of the backpack to help distribute the weight, focusing on keeping the heavier items to the back center of the bag. The backpack should always stay under 10% of the child’s weight to prevent falls and injury.

  2. Put it on

    1. Encourage your child to pick up their backpack in the most ergonomic way. This means having them bending and lifting from their knees vs bending at the waist. This may take some practice!

  3. Adjust and Carry

    1. Ideally the backpack would have a sternum and hip strap, along with both shoulder straps. The backpack should fit snugly against the child’s back.

4. Set Personal Goals

Goal setting is a wonderful habit to start with children, even at a young age. Setting goals is a great way to work on anxieties, struggles, and can lead to a sense of empowerment. It can provide tangible steps for things that can otherwise seem overwhelming. Additionally, it provides opportunities to check-in during the school year to see how progress on the goals are coming along. According to a recent article from The Washington Post, research shows that individuals are 42% more likely to reach their goals if they write them down and check their progress regularly. Goals can be academic and/or homework type goals, social goals, organization goals, or even routine type goals. Children can be supported in setting goals with the help of a parent, teacher, or you as their therapist. If a goal seems too lofty or progress isn’t being made, try breaking the goal into small obtainable steps.

5. Prioritize Sleep

One of the most difficult challenges after summer break is reestablishing sleep routines. Making sure students are getting adequate sleep is one of the most important things parents can encourage. According to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, children aged 6-12 should be getting between 9-12 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, while adolescents aged 13-18 should be getting between 8-10 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. According to the CDC, studies show that over half of high school and middle school students do not get enough sleep. As a school-based practitioner or teacher it may be helpful to let parents know if a student is chronically falling asleep while at school. Lack of sleep and restorative sleep can lead to trouble with focus, concentration, and academic performance. Children and adolescents may also experience higher risk for many health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, injuries, and attention/ behavior problems. The CDC provides many tips for parents on this subject. One tip they recommend is modeling and encouraging good sleep habits, including setting bedtimes (even for adolescents). They are also encouraged to evaluate the lighting in their children’s bedrooms. Lighting from electronics and/or other light sources can inhibit restorative sleep. Along these lines, it is recommended to implement media curfews and keep electronics out of the bedroom. As a reminder, parents and therapists need adequate sleep too! This is a great time of year for adults to evaluate their own sleep routines, implementing better routines as needed! Check out the CDC for more of their information and tips on this topic.

Whether you are a therapist, teacher, parent or another type of pediatric professional, we hope these tips will help you navigate this school year!



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