August 11, 2015

Back to school basics

By Bill Cirone

Early August can be marked by a number of things: one last family vacation, perhaps; close-out deals on patio furniture; and Major League Baseball playoff races that are just beginning to heat up.

For educators and families with school-aged children, early August also means “back to school.” Indeed, by the time this article hits the press, many of our north county schools will already be back in session. For others, the start of the new school year is just days away.

While the hope is that enjoyable summer activities enable students and teachers alike to “recharge their batteries,” the fact is that the transition back to the structure of a school day and the inherent academic rigor to which our students will be exposed can present challenges to children and their families.

Here are a few things parents can bear in mind as they help their children get back in rhythm for the new academic year.

Reset the body clock. In a few months we’ll be turning our clocks back an hour. But back to school also means turning back the body clock. Odds are kids have been staying up later — and sleeping in later — during the summer months than they will once class is back in session. With the prolonged daylight hours of summer still with us, it can be difficult for kids to make the adjustment.

But given that most health professionals suggest that school kids get between 9-12 hours of sleep a night, it is important that they adjust their bedtime in order for them to be well-rested and attentive at the start of the school day. Being consistent with earlier bed times, shutting off the television an hour before lights out, and keeping the stress and excitement levels under control in the evening hours can all make that transition easier.

Clear the decks. One of my colleagues, proud of his “by-the-bootstraps” upbringing, tells the story of how his car’s alternator quit on him as an 18 year old college freshman, 700 miles from home while en route to school. He walked to a nearby payphone in rural North Carolina and called his mother.

“Call me back when you get it figured out,” she told him.

While encouraging independence and problem-solving abilities in children is an important part of parenting, the reality is there may be things that require immediate attention when kids head back to school.

Insofar as they are able, parents should put off that business trip, time-consuming volunteer activities, and other non-urgent projects until after the kids have settled in. Being available to help their children resolve schedule conflicts or problems with records and helping them get acclimated to the school routine can go a long way in minimizing any anxiety or confusion they may experience at the start of the school year.

Keep calm and learn on. Speaking of anxiety… It goes without saying that it can be a significant impediment to a child’s academic progress. Parents’ sensitivity to this potentiality is especially important as the school year begins. While it is OK for parents to acknowledge their child’s apprehension about a negative experience that might have occurred in the previous academic year, for instance, it is just as important that they reinforce their child’s ability to overcome that anxiety. And remember, kids take cues from the behaviors their parents display. Parents would do well not to overreact to those inevitable bumps in the road. Rather, they should be ever mindful of the importance of modeling confidence and optimism for their children.

Getting to know you. “I always appreciated it when parents would reach out to me to inquire about how their child was doing in class,” one of my friends, a former teacher, recently told me. “You pour so much time and effort into shaping these young minds,” she continued, “and it’s heartening to be reminded of the fact that those efforts are being reinforced before and after the school bell.”

Teachers have a formative influence on their children, and parents are well served by getting to know those professionals who are impacting their children in such measurable ways. While the frenzied first couple of days of school is probably not the time to pop in on your child’s teacher, it could be beneficial to all parties to schedule a meet-and-greet. Teachers’ contact information is always available at the front office. Call ahead to schedule a time early in the school year to introduce yourself.

“Education,” George Washington Carver once wrote, "is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” As those school room doors open for business once again this month, I encourage parents to keep the lines of communication open with their children and their teachers, with the goal of making their educational experience a rich and rewarding one.