September 5, 2012

Back to School Basics

5 simple steps to a successful school year

by Elizabeth McLeod, M.Ed.

September is a month of getting back into the routine of school. Children are adapting to new teachers, schedules, and class groupings, as well as changing social dynamics and expectations. Change and transition, even when positive, is a cause of stress for children and adults.

To help your family get off to a good start, here are 5 simple tips that sometimes go out the window when life becomes overwhelming. Committing to these basic stress-prevention and health guidelines will go a long way to creating a peaceful and productive school year.

Summer’s over, but don’t stop playing. 
Make sure kids get outside, play, and exercise. Exercise is healthy for body and mind. In his most recent book, Spark, John Ratey, an MD and professor at Harvard Medical School, “shows how even moderate exercise will supercharge mental circuits to beat stress, sharpen thinking, enhance memory, and much more.” Organized sports are a great way to encourage kids to be active, and it's also important for kids of all ages to have time to play without an agenda, preferably outside.

Being outside in nature balances a stressful lifestyle. Sunlight provides valuable nutrients and vitamins, while balancing the hormones that affect mood. Children of all ages need time to play. Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive development. Young children develop self-regulation and problem solving skills, and older children engaging in healthy risk-taking are less likely to gravitate towards unhealthy risks.

The days are full, but get to bed. 
Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Experts agree that 5-12 year-olds need 10 to 11 hours of sleep, but the average child gets less than 9 hours. Extensive research has consistently shown that sleep plays a vital role in promoting physical health, longevity, and emotional well being. Without enough sleep, children may be cranky; their judgment can be impaired, and their ability to learn and retain information weakened. The reality of getting the family to bed early is not always easy. Start the new school year by establishing early bedtimes, and stick with them. Turn off all screens at least an hour before bedtime, and make sure that mobile devices are stored outside the bedroom overnight. Be firm about this. Now is the time to establish good sleep habits.

You are what you eat. 
Children’s brains need the proper nutrients to meet the demands placed on them all day in school. To give your child’s brain the fuel it needs, limit sugar and processed foods and load up on fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. If possible, help your children develop awareness about how different foods affect them. What we eat affects our moods and outlook, as well as energy level. Get in the habit of eating breakfast. Provide healthy snacks and meals, and make sure everyone is drinking water. Every system in your body depends on water. It flushes toxins and carries nutrients to the cells in your body.

Spend time with family and friends. 
Positive relationships support kids. To strengthen your relationship with your child, make sure you spend time each day really listening. Listen without judgment to your child’s gripes, giving your full attention (in other words, make sure your cell phone is off and you’re away from the computer). Be careful not to jump in with advice. Practice being present with them and listening with curiosity and kindness and without judgment.

If it’s hard to get your child to talk about her day, get creative. Play a game such as Two Truths and Lie at the dinner table (each person says three things from their day with one thing being a fib. Other family members guess what’s true and what isn’t.) or take turns sharing a “high and a low” from the day.

Sometimes your child may need someone besides you for support. Encourage and provide opportunities for time with other positive role models—a teacher, a cousin, a mentor, also recognizing that peers and friends provide support, too.

Model and create structures and practices for positive thinking, optimism, and a growth mindset. 
When you do give feedback to your child, be specific and stay away from general praise. It is more effective to recognize and appreciate a child’s persistence, effort, and enjoyment of a task than to praise them for being “the best” at something. A growing body of research from educators like Stanford University’s Carol Dweck have found that telling children they are “smart” or “talented” may result in less risk-taking and lower motivation. In Dweck’s seminal work Mindset, she describes the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that their basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, a belief that leads to increased motivation and resilience in learning.

Children who are praised regularly come to expect it and rely on it, and if they don’t hear it may feel like they have failed. Encouragement, on the other hand, allows children to develop a more internal locus of control, which means they follow their own interests and feel comfortable making mistakes and learning from them.

Finally, look for opportunities to notice and express gratitude for the simple things in life. Take time to let each other know what you appreciate about each other. One of the most powerful tools we have access to at all times is our ability to stop, pause, breathe, and be present with life’s unfolding.

They grow up fast, so be sure to pay attention and enjoy the ride.

Elizabeth McLeod, M.Ed. has been an educator for 20 years, working in diverse settings including the classroom, wilderness, and yoga studios with students of all ages. She is the co-founder of GirlVentures and the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning.

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