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Tasneem Bhatia, M.D. Headshot

Back-to-School Survival Guide, Part I: Master the Schedule

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August signals the end of summer and the start of another busy school year. Children, and their parents, are adjusting to new schedules, new activities and new teachers. With my 5-year-old headed off to kindergarden, I also feel the combined anxiety and excitement as my child begins a new chapter. Going back to school, I realize, is more than just back-to-school shopping. There are emotional, medical and social issues that we, as parents, must be ready to navigate.

The Schedule

While there is no way to anticipate how the school year will develop, creating basic structure will help everyone ease into this transition. Bedtimes often need to be adjusted, alarms are set earlier, and after school activities rearranged. While I believe every child has a unique bio- rhythm, or times when they may be more or less energetic, I have found in my practice that every child's schedule should account for the following times.

The Morning Madness (6:00 a.m.-8:00 a.m.)

The morning routine for your children is one of the critical points of the day. Children heading to school stressed, disorganized and hungry is a recipe for moody children that cannot learn. Work with your children to make the morning seamless. A few helpful tips include:

  • Prepare the night before. Have your children pick clothes for the next day and have backpacks in the car or by the door.
  • Prepare breakfast the night before. Ready-to-go breakfasts are a guarantee that your child will not leave hungry for school. High protein pancakes and muffins, protein smoothies, nut butter sandwiches and breakfast quesadillas are easy eat-as-you-go breakfasts. Remember breakfast needs to have some protein and minimal sugar. Sugary cereals, muffins or bars can impact your child's energy and concentration.
  • Be ready before your children. Wake up one hour before your children. This gives you time to get ready, organize for the day and minimize your morning stress.
  • Consider music or exercise in the morning. These activities boost serotonin and sharpen memory.

The Midday/ Afternoon Slump

Many children lose focus and concentration around 10:00 a.m. and then again around 2:00 p.m. These are critical times in your child's day.

Examine your child's schedule. Is there a change in routine at these times? Shifting to an outdoor space or different room may be helpful for better focus and concentration.

Is your child allowed snacks? High protein, low sugar snacks sustain energy and improve mood. Send your child to school with multiple snack options, but look at the sugar content. My goal for children is to keep their total sugar load under 40 grams per day or about 6 tsp. This is equivalent to the amount of sugar in half a can of soda. Most prepared children's snacks are loaded with sugar or refined carbohydrates. Great snack options include:
  • Hummus with carrots
  • Plain yogurt with nuts or cereal
  • Small sandwiches
  • Fruit/Cheese

After school, children need physical activity. Sports, playgrounds and gyms should be the destination of choice after school.

The Evening Wind Down

As the evening approaches, children should have time to relax and bond with their family and siblings. The family dinner is a time for everyone to come together and evaluate, share stories about their day. It is a chance for your kids to relax around you and stay connected. The greatest trap for many families in the evening is being over scheduled. Balancing after school activities is important in maintaining school/family balance, just as adults have to maintain work/life balance.

While academics and homework are important, creating a relaxation retreat will help your child unwind and prepare for the next day. Journaling, reading and warm baths with sandalwood or lavender oil are easy ways for your child to de-stress. Children also respond well to guided imagery tapes which use visualization and imagination to build a sense of safety and self-esteem.

The schedule can determine your child's school and relationship success. Spend some time this August critically evaluating your family schedule. We are all trying to find the balance between structure and free play, academic skills and creative, project focused learning, indoor and outdoor space, family and school. The ultimate goal is seeing our children living healthy, naturally with optimum mental, social and physical health.