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How can I get my children back into the school routine?

Ask the Expert: We have developed bad habits and I’m worried they will struggle with the transition

Question: I'm not sure how my kids are feeling about the return to school after such a long time at home. Like lots of families we have got into bad habits around going to bed late, getting up late in the morning and lots of screen time during the day.

I am also worried about the amount of junk food they have been eating and I would like to get back on track with more healthy meals. They have been out of the school routine for so long now so I am wondering how they will adjust particularly with early mornings.

Is there anything I can do to help them with the transition?

Answer: On any normal year, the start back to school after summer is a major readjustment for families. Now in the era of coronavirus, returning to school brings extra challenges and stresses for parents and children. Having endured a long six-month absence, children are more out of a school routine than ever before.

There are also genuine worries about how schools will reopen and cope with the new safety rules. This will require substantial adaptation for teachers, children and parents. You are right to anticipate this transition and to take time to prepare your children for it. The good news is that the return to school provides you with an opportunity to introduce healthier and more balanced routines into family life that will work better for you and your children.

Visualise the ideal routine

The first step in establishing a good routine is to visualise in detail what the ideal routine might be. Imagine the perfect morning routine for you and your children and how this might set you all up for the day. This might include an early relaxed bedtime routine that allows everyone to get up early in the morning with plenty of time for breakfast and to get ready for school.

The best routine might run something like:
1) Each evening, kids and parents prepare school lunches, pack school bag and choose clothes for school.
2) An early bedtime that includes a story or chat with parent.
3) An agreed rising time for kids (set them up with their own alarm clocks).
4) Plenty of time to get ready for school.
5) A sit-down family breakfast.
6) Leaving with plenty of time for the journey to school

Focus on a healthy family breakfast

A good morning routine should include plenty of time for a healthy family breakfast. This is an excellent habit to establish that ensures your children eat well at the start of the day and gives you time to connect and listen to them before they go to school. A good breakfast can set the right mood for at the start of the day for everyone.

The key to making it healthy is to give your children options and to make it attractive to them. For example, you might insist that porridge is the breakfast staple but allow your children to add fruit or yoghurt of their choice that they can vary from day to day. On their website, Keelings describes several healthy breakfast options that include fruit and berries and ensures children get at least one of their five a day.

Plan with your children the new routine 

Get your children motivated about the school routine by planning it out with them. Sit down with them and talk about the school return and involve them in the plans you are making. Make sure to listen to any worries and concerns they have about going back to school and explore with them how you can solve these.

Ask them what might make it easier for them to go back to school and what routine might work best for them. It can help to write out the steps of the new routine on a chart that you can pin on their bedroom wall. Recognise that it might be hard for them to adjust and consider using rewards or other strategies to motivate them. For example, you might arrange a treat at the end of the first day or the first week to recognise their efforts and adjustments. Even young children can be involved in planning out the new routine. For example, you can get them to draw out the steps on a colourful star chart or motivate them with a special lunchbox or school bag with their favourite TV character.

Gradually move towards the new routine

For many families, it works best to gradually introduce a new routine rather than jumping all in on day one. For example, you might slowly introduce earlier bedtimes the week before and try out your new breakfast choices. Many schools recognise the need for gradual transitions and are introducing children back with half days or on a phased basis. Follow the school’s lead on what is best and review carefully its guidelines regarding Covid-19 safety so everyone is prepared.

Anticipate challenges

Recognise that there will be challenges as you get back into school and make sure you have time in your own schedule to deal with these as a parent. For example, if possible it can help if you or your partner can arrange to have a less busy work schedule for the first two weeks so you can be there to support your children getting out in the morning or be there for them when they come in.

They are likely to be tired after school for the first few days so make sure they have plenty of time to chill and recuperate as they adjust to the transition.

– Dr John Sharry is a social worker, founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD school of psychology. See solutiontalk.ie