While the start of a new school year is an exciting and busy time, it can also be nerve-wracking for many parents and children.
Many moms and dads battle to get their kids out of holiday mode and back into a routine – and it’s not helped by a lack of enthusiasm from kids who are not naturally organised or motivated.
You’re already girding your loins for the cries of, “Mom, I can’t find my socks/PT clothes/pencil bag!” Or maybe there’s a little kernel of dread in the pit of your stomach that you’re once again going to be faced with a child who’s anxious about school.
“For children who struggle with concentration – as well as those who are anxious – being organised can be even more of a challenge,” says clinical psychologist Mareli Fischer, who works from The Claremont Practice in Cape Town.
“Luckily this time of year presents a great opportunity for parents to teach their kids planning skills and organisational strategies,” Fischer says.
It’s a chance to show them how being prepared can help them feel more in control and less overwhelmed.
Once they get the hang of it, “their symptoms of anxiety and stress will decrease and their motivation will improve”, she adds.
Here’s how to help your kids start off the year right, as well as tips on how to deal with these two common issues.
Things to put in place.
A flexible routine
The most practical way to get your child ready for school is to ensure there’s structure to their day.
A predictable routine with set times for getting up, having breakfast, getting dressed, doing homework, eating and playtime is vital, Fischer says. And a regular bedtime is of the utmost importance.
They might not like it, but the consistency of a schedule helps kids feel secure because they know what to expect. It doesn’t have to be rigid – there will be days when things get mixed up – but get them used to the idea of certain things needing to happen within certain time frames.
“This also teaches time management,” Fischer adds. “It’s a good idea to start practicing a schedule in the week leading up to school starting.”
Bags must be packed the night before
Get your kids into the habit of packing their school bag and sports bag the night before. “Younger children may need help at first, but as they grow older they should take responsibility for doing it themselves.”
A homework diary is useful
If your child’s school doesn’t provide one, it’s worthwhile to invest in one. “It’s important that kids learn how to use a diary to keep track of homework, assignments, exam timetables, sports events and whatever else,” says Elretha Bartlett, a counselling psychologist at Meaningful Minds in Johannesburg.
Initially parents should check the diary but as kids get older they should learn to manage it themselves. However, make it clear to your child that you’re available to offer guidance and to answer questions.
Research shows that kids perform better when parents foster a sense of independence in them. “From the ages of eight or nine kids can realistically be expected to manage their own schoolwork,” Bartlett says.
“You could even encourage older kids to make a list of realistic goals in the front of their diary.”
Decide where homework will be done
Before the school year starts, parents and kids should prepare a homework space together, Fischer advises. “This should be somewhere quiet and with a comfortable, upright chair. Shop for supplies to ensure all the necessary stationery is there and get the space ready.”
Make sure they get enough shut-eye
It’s natural to be a bit more relaxed during the holidays, but they need to be up early for school again soon, so start getting them to bed earlier. This is especially important for those in Grades 1 to 3.
“Children aged six to 13 generally need between nine and 11 hours of sleep,” Bartlett says. “I suggest gradually moving their bedtime earlier a week before school starts.”
It’s also advisable to cut down on their screen time. “Primary school kids are becoming more and more interested in stimulating technology such as computer games, video games and the Internet,” Fischer says. “These things are often linked to sleep problems, which can lead to bad concentration in class.”
How much time for homework?
A general rule of thumb is roughly 10 minutes per grade level, says Elretha Bartlett, a counselling psychologist at Meaningful Minds in Johannesburg. “For example, kids in Grade 5 can be expected to be busy with homework for 50 minutes every day.”
Get them motivated
After a long period of relaxation most kids won’t be excited about going back to school – not for the work, anyway. “So it’s important to get them into the right headspace,” Bartlett says.
“Chat to your child about what’s important to them for the year ahead. With younger children, you can simply ask, ‘What are you looking forward to? Are you more excited about drawing and painting or learning to write?’
“The conversation can be a bit more complex with older kids – you can start exploring their values and goals for the year ahead.”
Children who believe in their abilities are more likely to be successful in their schoolwork. “Help your child identify their talents and strengths,” Bartlett adds. “Encourage them to set goals for themselves and use praise and encouragement to motivate them.”
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