Mind the Gap
If you’ve ever been to London, you’ll recognize the phrase “Mind the gap.” It’s what a woman’s voice with a serene accent warns as you leave the subway car and step onto the platform. It’s the restrained British way of screaming “Watch out!” But I like to think that the use of “mind” also encourages us to be mindful. As parents, we need to be particularly mindful at this time of year as our child leaps from summer to school.
Admittedly, we’re sometimes relieved to have our children back in school. Entertaining and caring for kids during the summer can be expensive and exhausting. But in our rush to get our kids out of our hair, are we attending to their needs?
Think about your own life. If you take a vacation at work, how do you feel that first Monday back? Tired? Overwhelmed? Your child’s transition is even larger. She has had two whole months to play, eat and sleep on her terms and she is returning to a new teacher, new classmates and a new room. That sort of transition is more comparable to getting a new job than simply returning from vacation.
Here are some steps you can take to ease the transition for your child:
Lighten the social calendar. Instead of piling on activities and playdates, make the first few weeks calmer. While you want your child to renew friendships from the previous year, you don’t want to overwhelm him with a packed schedule. Attend to your own calendar, too. Try to limit business trips or stressful deadlines at work. If possible, arrange your schedule so that you can be home earlier or take a few days off, especially at the start of the month. You’ll want to be there for your child as much as possible this first month.
Go to bed. Slowly ease into earlier bedtimes. Unfortunately, the days still feel seductively long and it’s hard to coax children into their beds at a reasonable hour. Still, creep toward a reasonable hour in 15-minute increments. Soon enough, you’ll return to a bedtime routine that works.
Wake up. Until everyone gets his or her morning groove back, be sure to leave extra time in the morning. Try creating nighttime and morning routines that are as easy and relaxed as possible. Perhaps your child can pick out her clothes for the next day at night. Or, if getting out of bed is hard, help your child make a wake-up CD or playlist that will act as his alarm. Whatever you do, make it simple. The less all of you have to think about in the morning, the better.
Talk to your child. Whenever possible, allow your child to make decisions about morning and evening routines, homework schedules and extracurricular activities. When parents are the only ones making decisions, they are also the only ones committed to them. Save yourself some screaming and tug-of-war matches by allowing your child to contribute solutions for exiting the house. If she comes up with the ideas, she’ll be more likely to follow through. Talk to her about school itself as well. Use open-ended questions to ask about specific things. Try “What were some funny things that happened today?” or “What were some of the things you learned today that surprised you?”
Stay in school. Avoid any absences for at least the first few weeks. September and October are crucial months in the school year. The teacher uses these first weeks to establish a classroom community and it’s essential that everyone is present to contribute to its formation. Attendance will help your child socially as he makes sense of his classmates as well as academically as he learns the expectations and routines of his new teacher and class.
Study as a family. Start the year off well by having family study time. Even if there’s little official homework early in the year, you’ll get everyone in the habit of quiet reflection and learning time. You can use this time to read independently or to your child; either way, you’re modeling the enjoyment of reading. Or you could use this time to find out what she is studying in school. Perhaps it’s something you want to learn about, too!
Be positive. Remember, whether your child is 5, 10 or 15, returning to school after a summer hiatus is a big deal. Mind the gap! If your child is in early elementary school, he might like a note in his lunch box. If he is anxious, acknowledge his feelings and let him know that it’s natural to be nervous about new things.
Still, new things can also be wonderful. Share some examples from your own life. Don’t forget to model enthusiasm and optimism. As always, your kids watch you for cues. They’ll notice if you are worried or negative. And while it might make sense to acknowledge struggles from the previous year (especially if your child brings them up), strategize about how to solve them and remind him that this is a whole new year with new possibilities.
One of my favorite things about being a teacher is that I get a fresh start each September. Kids do, too.
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade.