Back-to-School Problems . . .

. . . . and how to solve them.

After six weeks of fun, sun, boredom, beaches, lazy mornings and stress-free evenings it’s back-to-school time for the southern hemisphere.

I’ve been enjoying the mixed reactions of clients, some of whom have been counting the days until their kids are out from under-foot, some of whom have been dreading the discipline and scheduling that schooling demands.

Whether you’re delighted or daunted by the rhythms of school, here are the five most common problems families face and some tips for how to deal with them.

1. WAKING UP ON TIME

How do you get the sleepy heads out of bed with enough time for dressing, basic hygiene, breakfast and the commute to school?

  1. First, figure out who needs to be where and when so you know what you are shooting for.
  2. Involve  the kids in figuring out how much time each person needs to be at the right place at the time. How much time does each kid estimate he or she needs for actually getting out of bed once they are awoken? For dressing, teeth and hair, breakfast, puttering about?  If you involve the child in this sort of planning they begin to get a sense for how they operate and, they have no one to blame but themselves if they are late. Even Year 1 children can start to take responsibility for their morning habits and how long each project will take.
  3. Make a contract. Once you’ve established that Sarah needs to be at the bus stop at 7:50am and she needs 50 minutes for all her morning tasks, then her feet need to hit the floor at 7:00am. If she buys into this she is less likely to blame you or rebel when 7:00am rolls around each morning.
  4. Don’t BE the alarm, BUY one. The last thing parents need to be is their child’s wake up call. Painful as it is to be tossed from a warm bed you don’t want your child associating this rude start to a day with you! Kids love to get their own alarm, learn how to set it, and take responsibility to their morning routine.
  5. Make mornings calm. Once you have a routine for these morning tasks, keep to them. Kids love the world to be predictable so the more you remind them of how their mornings will go and the more they indeed see mornings unfolding this way, the more the world will seem to be a safer place.
  6. Make mornings fun.  One family I know invested in some stop watches and encouraged their kids to time themselves from wake up to leaving the house. Then, each day they got to see if they could beat that time and establish a “personal best” .  Don’t encourage siblings to race one another – that leads to tears and fights. But with personal bests – everybody wins.

2.  BREAKFAST

How do you get everyone up and out with something nutritious on board?

  1. First, figure out your family’s priorities. Some families love to gather together for breakfast before they all set off. These can be simple meals like cereal and fruit, or scrambled eggs and toast. But if this is what your family loves to do – build in time for this. If you’ve got a bunch of non-morning people who prefer to nibble on a bagel and cream cheese on their own schedule – then so be it.
  2. Shop accordingly. The last thing you want on a Monday morning is to be scouring the fridge for the loaf you thought was there and finding nothing. Provision the fridge for easy to find and serve breakfast items.
  3. Delegate as much as possible. Even small children can be set up to reach the mini cereals, bowls, spoons and small milk jug on a low shelf in the fridge so they can be independent  – if this is how your family likes to operate.
  4. Keep food choices simple. Even if you feel strongly that you’d like to prepare a cooked breakfast for your family, avoid too many choices. Offering toast or muffins, white bread or brown, eggs fried or scrambled, hot chocolate, tea or coffee is all too much. Just put a plate of something you know your child likes in front of them. If you get the “Yuk I don’t want scrambled eggs today” you’d be wise to stay firm. “This is today’s menu my darling. Lunch time will come around and I expect you’ll be ready for your sandwich by then!” Unless you want to be a highly stressed short order cook each morning – be careful how you handle this one!
  5. If you’ve opted for the “everybody can graze on their own” breakfast option, be sure to have nutritious things on hand:  yogurt, hard boiled eggs, peanut butter, sliced fruits, bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon.

3.  STUFF MANAGEMENT

How to avoid the “Mum! Dad! Have you seen my . . [choose one or more..] backpack, library book, science project, note for the teacher, violin, lunch box, water bottle, PE clothes, homework, text book?”

  1. Create a place for everything. Think “What comes home needs a home.”
  2. Let me say that again – everything needs a place to go so that everyone knows what goes where and puts it there: well, mostly.  Think about how you want to sort things.
  3. Sort by owner: This can be a large wicker basket for each child for everything of theirs – anything of Joe’s gets tossed in the brown basket. Everything of Mary’s goes in the tan basket.
  4. Sort by use: water bottles and lunch tubs go on the kitchen counter; musical instruments go carefully in the study by the piano; homework goes in the study on the desk.
  5. Sort by need: dirty uniforms and PE clothes go in the laundry hamper; teacher notes that Mum or Dad need to read go on the office space in the kitchen.
  6. At the end of the evening, each child should be responsible for reassembling their pack. Is homework done and back in the pack? Has the violin been practiced and is it back by the door? Fresh PE clothes packed? Notes for teacher signed and back in the pack?
  7. Important: Mum and Dad, ask yourselves, “who’s problem is it if something gets lost or left behind?”  Is this your problem or your child’s problem? There’s many a parent who stresses over a lost homework assignment much more than the child who stands to loose the grade. The consequences for not tracking his or her stuff will never be as light as they are now for your child in school. Setting up systems is the parents’ job. Teaching your children how to use these systems is the parents’ job. Actually participating in the systems successfully – that’s your child’s job.

 4. LUNCH

How to master the fine art of the school lunch box without fuss, muss or stress?

  1. Start off with the conversation – “What do you like for lunch at school?” Not that you have to produce everything junior wants, but as your child lists off, “salt and vinegar chips, chewy sweets, a fizzy drink and a banana” – make a note of the one or two things you might be wiling to include!
  2. Think in terms of the 3 main food groups: protein, vegetable, and grain or starch.
  3. Brainstorm with your child his or her 5 favourite forms of protein: hard boiled eggs, slices of cheese, sliced meats, smoked fish or meat, small tins of tuna, smoked tofu, peanut butter, salted almonds, or?
  4. Brainstorm with your child his or her 5 favourite forms of vegetable: carrot sticks, celery sticks, a small cole slaw, mini tomatoes, avocado, snap peas, seaweed salad, or?
  5. Brainstorm with your child his or her 5 favourite forms of grain or starch: crisps, crackers, bagels, bread, pasta, rice or?
  6. Make a generic shopping list of all these favourite items and be sure to keep these items on hand during school times.
  7. Delegate. Even if you have a young child you can work together the night before (or in the morning if this works better for you) to put a helping of each of the main food categories into a lunch box. Tuck in a small bottle of water and a piece of fruit and you’ve worked with your child to establish a healthy food habit for life.
  8. Don’t forget left-overs. In our family we deliberately make twice as much dinner as we know we’ll eat so everyone takes a plastic container of left-overs for lunch, along with some nuts and a piece of fruit.
  9. If you are running out of ideas, ask your kids what their friends eat? Check out web sites for simple but tasty lunch ideas.

5. HOMEWORK

Or, why is this not called “Home Fun”?

  1. For each child, look into what the homework expectations are. Some schools try to minimize the amount of work brought home. Some schools expect there to be from 2 to 4 hours more study each night.
  2. See if your child’s understanding of the amount of work brought home is the same as the teacher’s… if not clarify!
  3. Before jumping in to help, see if your child actually needs your help. Might be they enjoy being self-motivated in which case you only need to step in if their work is not getting done or it is not up to snuff.
  4. Everyone talks about making a special place for homework – so I might as well too. Make a place! It really is key to establish where your young scholar can spread out and do some writing, reading and thinking with minimal distractions. Will it be the kitchen table, counter, office, or den? When my daughter inherited our lovely old double bed – which feels huge to her – she declared it her office and that’s where she sets up her homework center.
  5. What about those distractions? The inevitable presence of the TV, radio, iPod, cell phone and social network opportunities? In terms of how much parents need to get involved in helping minimize these distractions, the key here is to know your child. Ask yourself and them about their ability to work while distracted. Watch them – can they handle five things at once and still produce quality work?  If they can, you job is easy – just keep your low profile monitoring radar on. If they clearly can’t you’ll need to have a conversation about this.
  6. This is potentially such a big topic! Let me know if you want a whole blog dedicated to kids and today’s electronic distractions. I’d be happy to produce one!

                                    GOOD LUCK

As I  always say – if you have a conversation that heads south, you can always try again. And if things really are not working – send me a note. I always respond, gemma@gemmautting.com

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