Parents: It’s time to start thinking ‘back to school’

Yes, it’s that time again. We’re quickly reaching the end of what seemed last May like an infinitely long tunnel called summer. Whether you’ve vacationed and tanned and exercised, read that book or weeded that garden or accomplished any of the million or so chores you had planned for the season, it’s almost too late now. It’s time to stop procrastinating about what could have been and what should have happened. It’s time to start thinking about school.

For some parents, the new school year is a relief. It’s a place to send the kids six-plus hours, five days a week that frees you up to work or play or otherwise be an adult. For other parents, the new school year is a loss. It’s the end of those precious few moments you and the kids can share together before real life takes over. Either way, the reality is upon us. It’s time to sharpen the pencils, buy new binders or duct tape up the old ones, wash last year’s backpack, charge up the laptop, and get your kids ready for the new year ahead.

Here’s how:

– Stuff. New clothes and supplies are trivia. Get the school’s or the teacher’s list of required materials and get it done. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

n Physical health. Your kids’ physical health is one of the three pillars necessary for a successful year ahead. A child who hurts or sniffles or coughs and is physically uncomfortable in school will be at a learning disadvantage and a social disadvantage. Give your kids every opportunity to succeed. Schedule that doctor’s visit immediately. Fix the pain. Stop the sniffles.

1. Are his medications current? He grew 3 inches and gained 10 pounds this summer. The dosage that worked for his June body may not be correct for his September body. Check now and make appropriate changes before he starts to slide down that slippery slope toward failure.

2. Did that problem that you hoped would go away this summer do as expected, or is it still around? Maybe you haven’t noticed it because the family’s been camping and swimming and playing all summer. Is she still lisping? Does he still have problems catching a ball or balancing? Don’t wait. Call the pediatrician today.

And then there’s vision and hearing. Certainly some of his “I don’t hear you” and “I didn’t see that” are selective attention. It’s hard to see and hear anything when your ears are have white wires growing out of them and your eyes are fixed on a colorful screen. It’s time to get vision and hearing checked, too.

– Is the curriculum suited to her needs? If your child has already been identified as needing educational accommodations, has an IEP or a 504 plan, it’s time to review. Are the special education accommodations that seemed suited to his last spring still suited to his this fall? Review the paperwork, consult with an educational advocate. Ask the school to have a review meeting.

And if you are concerned that your child has any kind of sensory, health or learning difference that might impact his success at school but you don’t already have special education services in place? It’s time to get that ball rolling. Call the school or the local SAU office. Ask for a meeting. If you wait to call until after the school year has begun, you’ll have to take a number in line. Sooner is better. Be a strong advocate.

– Mental health and behavioral concerns? If Billy or Sally or Suzie appears to be very distractible, impulsive and never finishes anything, if Molly or Ryan or Freddie is moving slowly, has no energy, doesn’t care about anything and seems withdrawn and isolated, or if your son or daughter’s mood and energy are dramatically different than what you’re used to, it’s time to check in with your friendly neighborhood mental health professional. Consult with the pediatrician along the way to make sure that it’s not a physical problem being mistaken for ADHD or depression. Thyroid problems, for example, often mimic mental health symptoms. But start now. And err on the side of safety. If you believe that your child is self-

destructive (cutting, hurting or burning himself, for example) or suicidal, dial 9-1-1. It’s always far better to be safe.

1. Drugs and alcohol? Smoking or vaping? These addictive and destructive behaviors are epidemic and are being hidden more and more often by a false sense of social endorsement. It doesn’t matter whether pot is legalized, it’s not legal for children. It doesn’t matter whether he’s “only” vaping and not smoking. Tobacco still kills. Your kids cannot succeed in school or in life while they’re using substances.

2. Belonging matters. One of the lessons driven home to me this summer is that kids who feel like they belong always do better in school. Belonging to a secure and supportive family unit is critical. Belonging to a group or a team or a club or an activity – no matter whether its underwater basket weaving or chess club or the football team – these things bolster confidence and help kids succeed more and more as they approach adolescence. On the flip side of this coin, kids who feel isolated and rejected are at high risk for substance abuse, academic failure and unhealthy relationships. Make this year the year of belonging in your home. Help your kids find a niche and master it now. Ask the school about extracurricular activities. Look into town-sponsored activities. But don’t overdo it. Three classes and clubs and teams a day, six days a week is probably too much.

– Structure, structure, structure. Structure means limits and associated consequences. Structure means boundaries that define space. And structure means routines and schedules that define time. Structure aggravates and invites limit testing, but ultimately structure reassures. It anchors. Structure saves kids from having to invest finite emotional energies into home life, so they can spend more emotional energy on learning and growing and having fun.

Structure means bedtime. Start the school year bedtime at least one week prior to the first day of school so your kids’ bodies and rhythms can adjust.

Structure means wake up at least one week in advance of school at the school year time.

Structure means re-instituting chores now so that the arguments are done and settled before homework sets in.

– Finally, familiarity. If your kids are starting in a new school or generally have trouble with change, reach out to the school and the teacher now. Go play on the new school’s playground. Go meet the teacher and help put up a bulletin board. Have a new school year party and invite expected classmates so that some social bonds can begin to gel before the first bell rings.

Parenting Pointer

School year bedtime and wake up a week in advance of school? Chores and schedules long before the first day back? Yes. Here’s why:

Limits invite limit testing. If there’s going to be an argument about the structure at home, I want it done and settled now, so that it doesn’t interfere with school. A child who is up all night because he’s not used to having a bedtime can’t learn as well as a child who is well-rested.

And on that subject, now’s the time to regulate screen time. When and for how long and under what circumstances will your kids have phone/tablet/computer/TV access during the school year? My suggestion? Try zero screen time for non-academic activities until at least the first progress report, then reward academics with screen time in the next reporting period commensurate with the last. Screen time is determined each quarter by the former quarter’s successes. But if you do this (or anything like it), you must stick to it. Don’t give in just because you’re tired or out-argued or absent. If you make a rule, stick to it, then reward success.

Dr. Benjamin Garber, Ph.D., is a New Hampshire-licensed psychologist and parenting coordinator. He writes and speaks internationally on subjects concerning child and family development. His latest book is “Holding Tight/Letting Go” available from unhookedbooks.com. Learn more about Garber and his child-centered services at HealthyParent.com. Find a collection of Garber’s popular press articles on his blog at bdgarberphd.wordpress.com. Garber welcomes your comments at papaben@healthyparent.com.