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Back to School Tips

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Dan Florell:  Welcome to NASP Dialogues, the dialogue podcast focused on events and issues in school psychology. I'm Dan Florell, the NASP webmaster and moderator of our current dialogue. Today, we're discussing back‑to‑school issues with Terri Sisson. Terri, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself.

Terri Sisson:  Well, hi there. As you already mentioned, my name is Terri Sisson. I'm a graduate of the James Madison University program in Virginia. I've been practicing school psychology for 13 years. I've worked in three different school systems. I started off in a real rural school system. My previous school system was in Chesterfield County, which is a very large system, where I was one of 40 psychologists. And now, I'm in Madison County, which I'm one of one because we're a very small school district. So I'm back to the rural. But no matter where you are ‑ rural or suburban ‑ there are back‑to‑school issues. So this is a good opportunity to share this with school psychologists and parents, as well.

Dan:  Well, and as you were mentioning, everyone is starting to get ready to go back to school. So what are some of the common issues that parents are going to need to deal with in transitioning their child into going back to school, after what are hopefully some lazy days of summer?

Terri:  [chuckles] I think that's a good way to describe it: lazy days of summer. I mean I think even school psychologists, teachers ‑ we all need to adjust back to a different schedule. I think that's one of the main issues that our kids are going to deal with, and ourselves, as well. And some people adjust more easily, I guess you can say, to different schedules than others do. So, it's real important for parents to know their kid, know how much time they need to adjust to a different schedule. Kids might also have anxiety returning to school ‑ not only just having a different schedule, a different teacher, new kids in their class, but also dealing with some of the social pressures. This is really true for kids of any age, not just younger kids who are just starting school.

I think another issue that is pretty common is not being prepared or a lack of organization. If you're not prepared for a change in schedule, often times it will kind of sneak up on you and cause rushing, maybe lateness, and even further anxiety.

Dan:  Right. Yeah, because I know there's the nervous excitement of starting a school year, but you also have, if you're changing classes, or especially, those transitions from, say elementary to middle school or middle to high school, can be particularly anxiety provoking, especially, if you hear about the tales of what the upperclassmen might do to the new people coming along.

Terri:  That's right. And there's always those rumors and hopefully, with our schools, that they keep those to a minimum and they're just that ‑ rumors.

Dan:  And I know some districts have really started doing some of these more transitions, for the big transitions anyway, of getting back to school of where maybe students going from fifth to sixth grade in the middle school, go a week early and spend a day or two just getting to know the layout, meet the teachers, and try to avoid some of the anxiety in that manner.

Terri:  That's right. I think that's a real important point because a lot of times, I know, parents can be overwhelmed with all the information that's coming from a school system ‑ lots of paper. But it's important to really look through those and scan because you can miss something important, if you just dismiss it as though, "There's another one of those papers." You don't want to miss an opportunity like that, that will help the child adjust to a differing situation.

Dan:  So getting a little more specific, you kind of touched on it a little bit, but what kind of preparation should parents make prior to the start of school?

Terri:  Right. Well, there are a lot of different things that are recommended throughout the years by professionals. I think two main ones that keep popping up over and over again are the issue of sleep and planning a routine. I think sleep is real important. You mentioned the lazy days of summer and I think a lot of times, it's just that. We tend to stay up later. It's light outside until nine o'clock or so. And we tend to sleep in later. And then, all the sudden, we have to change that routine and make sure our kids are getting plenty of sleep. There are lots of negative effects that come from lack of sleep. And those all affect academic performance, so kids can become more irritable; they can fidget more; they might have decreased attention; or their short‑term memory becomes an issue. They might have inconsistent academic performance because of those things.

Dan:  Right. Now, how much in advance would you suggest starting to wean them off that kind of late hour, sleep in late to getting back to more school hours? Is there a general rule of thumb?

Terri:  Well, once again, I think it depends on the child. Some kids kind of adjust. They'll have their 10 hours of sleep or whatever they normally get, no matter when you put them to bed. They'll sleep that late. But other kids have a much more difficult time. If your child is having a difficult time, I would say two weeks in advance, start trying to get them on a schedule. And it's really not bad practice for any child, no matter how easy they adjust, to have a two week adjustment period. One thing, I'd like to address, are that I think a lot of times, parents don't know how much sleep a child should have. And again, that varies from child to child, just like it varies from adult to adult, but in general, I would say an average would be for elementary school‑aged kids, usually around ten hours ‑ again, it may be as little as nine as much as eleven; middle school, usually around nine; when you get up into the teenaged years, maybe 8‑9, depending on the child.

One thing that I see over and over again that causes lack of sleep is TV in the room. And so, parents may want to consider really limiting the viewing of the TV or taking it out completely.

Dan:  I was going to say, with the adolescents especially, I know that's a particular battle. They've done the research with their basic rhythms, and how they like to stay up late and hate getting up early and so they still stay up late and then were forced to get up early and they're not getting that sleep. I would imagine in addition to TVs in their room, computers or cell phones or basically any of those electronic gaming systems, they've got a lot of very portable ones now, that you also have to be very cognizant of when we talk about the issues of sleep. It's one of those issues where it seems like a lot of people say, oh yes, it's important, but it's the first thing to go if they don't have time. It is important with the academics, especially at the beginning of the year getting that right tone, it sounds like.

Terri:  Exactly. And with the computers and cell phones‑ now cell phones get on the Internet and kids text or IM until all hours of the night, depending on the child. But if your child doesn't have the responsibility to be able to turn those things off and go to sleep, it might be better to remove them from their bedroom at a certain time.

Dan:  So you had talked about, in addition to sleep, that there were some other ways that parents can help prepare their kids prior to the start of school.

Terri:  That's correct. I think the other main one that I mentioned was planning a routine. Deciding ahead of time what time are you going to wake up. It's probably a good idea to allow a little extra time that first week. It's better to have an extra ten minutes to sit around than it is to be rushing around and not thinking that you are going to make the bus. Where are you going to put your backpacks and lunch boxes either before school or when the kids get off the bus after school? Where will homework be completed? What time will it be completed? What time will dinner be? How will extracurricular activities fit into your schedule? If you have those things planned out ahead of time, it will make your first week or two back to school a lot smoother and a lot less stressful on the parent and the child.

Dan:  Right, and there is that certain certainty when your brain's maybe not working at its optimum in the morning to know that the backpack is in the backpack place, homework has already been put in there, lunch has been prepped ahead of time, just to avoid all that kind of rushing feeling and going back to some of that anxiety and stressed that we talked about at the beginning of the podcast.

Terri:  Exactly, exactly. Some other things that might also be helpful in getting prepared for the start of school is to start thinking about nutrition. A lot of times during the summer we tend to snack on a lot of treats, have ice cream, things like that. Sometimes kids get into a habit and getting used to eating vegetables and other healthy things might take a little while to be less resistant, so start that early. Maybe have some quiet time, again we are kind of used to rushing around, watching a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games. It might be helpful to schedule things like reading, coloring, doing puzzles, listening to quiet music‑ things to get children to be able to focus for longer periods of time.

Dan:  Right. I was going to say almost all of the things that you are mentioning here are wonderful for kids, but it probably wouldn't be so bad for the parents themselves. In modeling a lot of these behaviors, they may find themselves to be a little more energetic and less stressed if they have all of these things in place. It is not only preparing the students, but I guess preparing the parents for the beginning of the school year.

Terri:  Exactly because it's change for everyone. Oftentimes when kids have a good model, someone they can look at and say, "Oh that's how you deal with a change", they will internalize it a lot more. If you just tell a child to do something but you physically do something different, a lot of times they are not as likely to follow your direction.

Dan:  Right, right. I know in my household I get sometimes arguments of why do I get to stay up a little later than my six year old child. [laughter]

Terri:  We have that at our house.

Dan:  I tried to explain it, but her eyes glaze over after a little while. Maybe I put her to sleep with my explanation, I don't know. Now once parents are prepared for going back to school what sort of extra things need to be done during that first week? We've done a lot of the things that you suggested prior to school starting, now school has started, the reality has now set in, what other sort of extra things can maybe the parent do to ease that transition?

Terri:  Well we talked about creating a routine, or planning a routine, whether it be sleep, homework, whatever. If you haven't done it by the time school has started, it's never too late to start. I've seen great improvements with kids who have not really been on a good schedule in the middle of the school year. Once the parents decide to implement one, you can see an improvement in the child, whether it be in their behavior, their academic functioning. So it is never too late to start. If you haven't already done that, then go ahead and start it after school has already begun. Another area to look at is homework. Really make sure that homework is in a well‑lit, quiet place. You really want to eliminate distractions‑ having the tv on, Internet, radio, having the child's cell phone right next to them is probably not the best when it comes to focusing on homework. A lot of children do a lot better when they have a regular time to do their homework. The same time, same place, every day.

Dan:  I was going to say with the homework, and by the way we do have a homework podcast with a lot more detailed information about that available on the NASP website, and the whole new generation of multitasking. They will try to convince parents that they can listen to this, do this, and IM at the same time. I get everything done and do well. When the reality is that multitasking is a pretty inefficient way to do all of those things. It's better to do the homework without those distractions rather than working on your computer and chatting with your friends on top of it all, and then waiting until after the homework is done to do all of those things.

Terri:  Exactly. I talked to parents about this, occasionally, about the multitasking and being attentive to one thing at a time. I can say, one of the aha moments that parents seem to have, I said, "Have you ever talked on the phone and been trying to watch TV at the same time?" You're hearing what the person on the phone is saying, but it doesn't really get through. Then, you realize, "I'm not paying attention." Then, you have to ask them to repeat themselves. It's kind of the same thing whether it's with homework or anything else. If you have another thing that you're doing, you're multitasking, you can't have your complete attention on any one of those things. Of course, when we're doing homework, when our children are doing homework, we want them to pay attention. Repetition is a great way to learn and revealing what you have just learned in school is a great way to learn.

Dan:  Well, and a lot of that deeper order thought processes is never really done with the multitasking because you are trying to flip from one thing to the other. Especially, stuff like Math, where you have to master something before you're able to move on. If you never had it to where you've done it in a very deep level, then you're never going to be able to go to that next level without struggling.

Terri:  That's correct.

Dan:  So, we know that, and you've mentioned, every child is different, some transition back to school better than others. What advice do you have for children who become real anxious with the idea of going back to school? Maybe, at the end of the school year, they didn't get along with some of the children. They now know that they're going to be in their new class. What are some ways that parents can help alleviate that? How can parents maybe work with the school to make them aware that this is maybe an issue?

Terri:  Right. Well, I think, it's real important to remember that children, of any age, can become anxious. I think, a lot of times, when we think of first‑day jitters, that kindergartener pops into your head. You see this little child, the way he gets on the bus, and is nervous. But, really, that can happen with children of any age all the way through high school. So, I don't want people to discount anxiety when it comes to older kids as well. These older kids, I think, a lot of times, they try to hide it. They try to put on a brave face. But, a lot of times, it's difficult to deal with anxiety on your own. So, it's important to kind of be in tuned with your children. See if they're displaying any symptoms such as trying to avoid going to school or avoid talking about going to school, maybe, feigning illness on the first day of school, things like that.

Dan:  Right. So, some children transition back to school better than others. What advice do you have for children who become anxious with the idea of going back to school? How are parents maybe able to work with the school if the child does get more than just your ordinary butterflies? They, actually, get very, very anxious at the idea, or even once they've started school, going back to school.

Terri:  That's right. Well, I think, the first line of defense is to, actually, talk with your child. Talk with them openly and listen. I think, a lot of times, as parents, we want to help solve our child's problems because we don't like to see them in pain. But it's important to listen. A lot of times, if we're trying to solve the problem, we're not, actually, hearing what the problem is. Then, after you've listened for a while, really, encourage the child with their abilities. See if they can problem solve on their own. Really, tell them that they have the abilities within themselves to help solve the problems. If they are not able to, then it is important to contact the school. You can always contact the child's teacher. But, if the child is not comfortable with that, the school psychologist is a wonderful person to talk with. Often, they are very well trained in dealing with anxious children. Another person that you may want to contact is your school guidance counselor. Maybe, it's important to find out who those people are before that first day of school. So, if your child does have any issues that seem like they're beyond what you can deal with, you already know who those people are to contact.

Dan:  All right, OK. Do you have any last thoughts as far as back‑to‑school issues that we haven't covered already?

Terri:  Well, the only other issue that I can think of is dealing with new schools. Whether it be transitioning from an elementary school to a middle school or going to kindergarten for the first time, some children are pretty anxious with that larger transition of going to a new place where they're not familiar with the people. They're not familiar with the layout of the school. I think, that, oftentimes, a lot of school systems are open to a child's going in during the summer, maybe during summer school, or a week or two before schools when the teachers are there but the students aren't. Maybe meet the teacher early, go to that school night, maybe take a tour of the new school. I've had a lot of success with taking pictures of the child at the school, like maybe in front of the school sign, at the school door. Then, place them in a little photo album where they are able to flip through. The parents can sit there and say, "Oh, look, there you are at the door of the school. There you are at your classroom." Sometimes, those things really help a child's prepare to know what they're going to.

Dan:  So, kind of a scripting, almost, a way to visualize them doing this new activity. When they, actually, do it, it seems familiar in some way.

Terri:  Exactly. We, actually, had a little child who wouldn't even go to school to take the pictures. But she was really into Hannah Montana, so we took Hannah Montana around at the school. Hannah Montana took all the pictures of ‑ Hannah Montana in the library and Hannah Montana in the classroom. Actually, the child did a fairly well transition for a child who wouldn't even step into the school to begin with.

Dan:  Right, right. It's a good story. Well, I'd like to thank you, Terri, for spending some time with us and discussing these back‑to‑school issues. That's going to conclude this Dialogues podcast. Please tune in again for future Dialogues podcasts available on the NASP website.