A pediatrician’s top 10 back to school tips

As a pediatrician, who is also the busy mother of two school-aged children, the end of the summer brings a lot of mixed emotions.  As parents and guardians, we can rejoice, while our kiddos may experience a wide range of feelings.  The joy of reuniting with their school friends is often tainted by worries of the unknown challenges ahead.  When preparing for and beginning a new academic year with new teachers, new coursework, and often new classmates, it is critical to remember the importance of parental engagement to help children succeed academically and socially.  As parents and caregivers, we have the opportunity of providing the much-needed tools, support, and encouragement that our children need to prosper not only in school, but in life.  After many years of sending our tykes off to school and working with countless families who are doing the same this time of year, I wanted to share with you my list of recommendations to help your child succeed in school:

1. Discuss with your children their goals and expectations for the new school year. It is important that student, parent, and teacher goals all align in order to have the most successful school year.  Discuss your child’s goals in detail and ask them why they are important.  Allowing your child to identify and express academic goals can create many opportunities for partnering with your child and their teachers to best support your student throughout their entire education.

2. Maintain a consistent study routine. Children benefit greatly from a set routine, including a study schedule and a location conductive to getting work done.  I invite parents to remain engaged in their children’s school activities by prompting questions, reading over school materials, spot-checking assignments, and asking teachers questions when your child seems to be struggling with a task.

3. Make family meals a priority. During family dinner time, I usually ask my children the following questions: What was the most exciting part of your school day?  What is something new that you learned today at school?  What was the most challenging part of your day?  Carefully listen to your children, as they may disclose to you issues that may be distracting them from learning.  If you set up a consistent time of sharing and sincerely listen to your children, they will learn to trust that you will be there for them.

4. Read a book for a minimum of 30 minutes, every day. Reading is an important part of a child’s growth and development.  Although children may be reading at school, parents should be encouraging reading in the home environment as well. My personal preference is paperback books, so children learn how to respectfully care for books.  After you finish, ask your child questions about the story they are reading, like who is the main character, what they think may happen next and why they would (or would not) recommend the book to a friend. Share in the wonder and joy of reading.  You won’t regret it.

5. Keep all access to computers and web-enabled devices in a family area where parents can monitor access to the internet. Bedrooms are for sleeping.  All electronics, including smartphones, computers, tablets, and televisions should be kept away from a child’s room.  Homework that requires the use of the internet should be completed in a family area where an adult can supervise the assignments and be aware of the internet usage of the child. I also encourage parents to consider parental internet blocks to avoid exposing children to inappropriate content.

6. Set up and maintain an evening bedtime routine. School-age children need, on average, nine to eleven hours of sleep per night.  It is important that your child goes to bed on time in order to wake up ready to learn the next day.  Make your child’s bedroom a place of rest. Learn what it is that helps your child unwind (not electronic devices) and make that a normal routine.

7. Don’t forget the power of positive feedback. Praise your child for their hard work and best efforts.  Children appreciate a pat on the back in gratitude for helping around the home, a smile when they grasp a new concept, and a recognition when mastering a new skill.  Encourage your child to think of constructive words of praise and gratitude for others as well.  There is strength in feeling valued and knowing we have strengths.

8. Extracurricular activities. While many children enjoy participating in organized sports or after-school clubs, others thrive through participation in music and the arts. Extracurricular activities allow your child to meet new peer groups that share similar interests and talents.  For children that struggle in school, an extracurricular activity may be an opportunity to excel and feel accepted.

9. Attend Back to School Night and personally meet your child’s teachers. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of Back to School Night as an opportunity to meet your child’s teachers. Be sure to obtain contact information for each teacher and establish open lines of communication. Partner with your child’s teachers and find respectful ways to let them know how thankful you for all they do to help your child thrive.

10. Enjoy the moment and have fun! Attending school is an important developmental stage for any child. Children do not need additional stress weighed upon them by their parents and caregivers. This by no means eliminates our responsibility for guidance.  As parents, our role is to exemplify lifelong learning, as we strive to prepare our children to become successful adults.

As we begin another school year, I would challenge you to take a moment to reflect on how much your children have grown over the years.  Don’t miss a chance to share in their excitement.  It is our responsibility as parents to make our children’s academic and social development a daily priority.

Johanna Vidal Phelan is a pediatrician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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