For many kids and parents, it can be an enormous challenge to head back to school in the fall. (If you missed it, check out this post about the emotional transition back to the school routine). If you’re the parent of a middle or high school student, this transition can be more overwhelming given the increased independence your student is expected to develop (or have). The move from parental involvement to letting kids manage their own time and homework load can be hard for students and parents alike. Knowing when to back off and let kids learn from their own mistakes and when to step in and set strict guidelines for phone and tablet use is tricky, to say the least.
One way to help your student develop some self-awareness around how distractions may or may not be affecting their academic performance is to have them track their time. I think that starting this exercise with a definition of their own personal goals and values is important, so you could encourage them to either jot down some answers to this on their own or, if they are willing, sit with them and talk about their answers.
- What are my goals for this school year? They can be anything from getting a certain GPA to becoming more proficient in a foreign language to really mastering algebra. These can also include athletic or other extracurricular goals, but it is important to ensure that there are some academic goals on this list.
- What are my longer-term goals? These can vary from getting into a good high school to finishing high school with a few college acceptance letters. They may also include graduate school plans or ideas about what kind of career your student wants, although it is vital to remember that 5 or 10 year goals need to be flexible because there is no way to anticipate what might happen.
- What are my most closely held values? Often, once we get started listing our values, it can be hard to stop. If that is the case here, let your student write as many down as they want to and then choose the top three for purposes of this exercise. Examples might be persistence, courage, excellence, family, hard work, community.
- How am I spending my time? Does it reflect my values and goals? This is where the rubber meets the road. Over the first two to three weeks of school, have your student simply track how they spend their time. Certainly, as they do this, it will be extremely difficult for them (and maybe you, too) to not judge or criticize, but do your best to resist the temptation to do so. Simply looking at how much time they spend playing video games, texting friends, watching TV, practicing piano, doing homework, speaking French, etc. offers them a window into whether or not they are actively choosing to engage in pursuits that further their goals. If they are spending far more time in recreational activities than they are working on their goals, have them spend some time reflecting on what that means. Does it mean the goals aren’t all that important, after all? Or are they simply doing these things out of habit? Where can they shore up their efforts to really live their values and move toward their goals? Or do they need to change the goals?
This exercise is good for all of us to do once or twice a year. We can so easily get sidetracked by unexpected events or transitions or simply fall back into old habits that it benefits us all to check in with ourselves every once in a while and make sure that we are living our values. And maybe if our adolescents see us doing this, they will come to understand its importance.
Some kids seem to make the transition from summer break to the routine of school days without much of a hitch (well, beyond the longing to sleep in every day and have a more relaxed schedule). Others have a hard time settling back in every year, sometimes no matter what their summer has been like. If you have a student who struggles with routine changes, here are some ideas to help them start off the school year without as much angst and frustration.
- Acknowledge the situation without blaming or shaming. Kids who are built this way already know they’re different. Maybe they see friends or siblings who don’t have anxiety or struggle with the first few weeks of school. It’s important for them to know that, while it causes them some challenges, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. It’s also important for them to know that it’s ok to feel the way they feel and ask for help if they need it. Sometimes when you’re agitated, the more you try to hide it, the worse you feel. Let your student know you’ll support them through this time.
- Remind them that it won’t last forever. Generally, once we get used to a new routine, we become comfortable with it fairly quickly. While it can feel like it takes forever to get into that rhythm, they know from past school years that they will eventually get there.
- Encourage your child to identify their most important values. This can be a tricky one because sometimes it feels a little disconnected to their anxiety, but often our anxieties are related to what we think other people want from us or expect us to be. If we can hone in on what we want from ourselves, we often feel better about how we make our way through our day. For example, if your child values courage and hard work, they might decide to do one thing every day to exhibit those values. They could introduce themselves to one new person every day, and challenge themselves to spend 15 minutes more re-checking their homework or doing an extra credit problem. Having those guiding principles to help ground them can go a long way toward relieving some of the angst about a new school year.
- Find a physical outlet or soothing practice. Some kids burn off that extra frustration by shooting baskets or skateboarding or going for a run. Other kids prefer to wind down by listening to music alone, playing an instrument, drawing or relaxing in the bath. If they can set aside some portion of every day for the first week of school to indulge in something that helps them release the physical tension they feel, it can make a big difference.
- Try guided meditation. I created this quick meditation for my daughter when she was struggling with a transition a few years ago. She says that whenever she comes up against a big milestone or growth period, she closes her eyes and uses it to help remind her that growth and change are necessary and difficult. If you think your child would like it, have them sit in a quiet, comfortable position with their eyes closed while you read the following to them:
Picture yourself as a snail. Your shell can be any color you want and when you look next to you, you see a different, bigger shell. Take a minute to create that bigger shell in your mind’s eye. What colors does it have? What is its shape? Is it smooth or spiky? Long and lean or tall and round? Don’t tell me. Just picture it in your mind. Now take a moment to feel what it feels like to be in your current, small shell. It’s a little too tight and restrictive, isn’t it? I want you to take a deep breath in and when you let that breath all the way out, your old shell is just going to pop right off your back and roll to the side. When it does, I want you to look at it and silently thank it for protecting you all this time. Be grateful for all it was for you and let it know that it was important, but that you don’t need it anymore. Now, before you turn your attention to the new shell, I want you to focus on how great it feels to be out of the old one. It’s a little scary because you’re pretty vulnerable, but you’re safe for now. Just take some deep, deep breaths and stretch your self out into this new, open space with each exhale. When you’re ready, slip into your new beautiful shell and feel the cool, smooth inside that was made just for you. Take a moment to wiggle around in it and orient yourself. Feel how it’s not too heavy for your back and it feels expansive and comfortable. When you are ready, thank the new shell for being there and open your eyes.
I’d love to hear if any of these tools made a difference for your child as they begin the new school year.