As the weeks of summer break shift into back-to-school season, the possibility of a more normal school year feels a bit closer! For most families with adolescents, a new school year also means a fresh effort to organize a busy household around routines.
But routines are more than just organization. Young people need structure to feel safe in their home and in family relationships. I’ve raised seven children through teenagehood and can personally attest to the fact that young people are notorious for objecting to household structures and parental expectations. This is, after all, the glorious stage of establishing their freedom and learning independence.
Child development experts, however, have long praised the value of routines, habits and other clear structures — especially when life outside the home has been unpredictable. Routines give adolescents agency, allowing them to manage their behavior and choices. Predictable structures also help a young person avoid an excessive level of freedom that can make adolescent life overwhelming. And for people of all ages, routines are widely recognized to have a positive effect on mental health.
How do I begin to create new routines?
Back-to-school transitions can increase stress for any student who finds themselves thinking about a new schedule, new teachers and changing friendship circles. Then add in the adjustments from the past year of masks, canceled events, hybrid and remote learning and more. It’s no wonder student anxiety is higher than normal, with many adolescents uncertain about how to engage with peers and motivate themselves again to find academic success.
Creating new routines can help a lot — but it takes both planning and patience. In fact, the Transtheoretical Model of Change tells us that there are five stages that any person will go in the process through, from thinking about a change to mastering it. As your adolescent (and you) move through the stages of change to create new routines, use these three strategies to ease adjustments and stay on track, in spite of the natural pitfalls along the way.
- Talk about back-to-school routines ahead of time
- Work together on routines and habits
- Take small steps now - don’t wait till school starts
- Anticipate (and normalize) the ups and downs
Not sure what kinds of routines might help your middle or high schooler? We’ve outlined seven areas, with tips and resources to help any household getting ready to go back to school.
Talk about routines
Conversations about routines — a few weeks before the first day of school — create a healthy space to explore options and ideas. This extra time also allows your teenager and household to plan, test and troubleshoot a new routine on non-school days, without working against the tardy bell.
Most routines fail because we try to make changes too quickly. The Transtheoretical Model has five steps for a good reason. Healthy, lasting change happens one step at a time, not all of a sudden. Involving your child in the planning and conversation helps, but guide them to start now by going to bed earlier, or plugging their phone in downstairs.
Our children do what they see, not what we say. So make your new routine and share it with the family as a way to model a change in habit. Let them see you planning and taking steps, and intentionally share updates about how it's going. Then ask for their cooperation in basic decisions, such as who takes a shower at 6:30 and who goes at 6:45, as a way to get them thinking about their routines. Do the same for after school and bedtime, talking more basics, such as who is home first to let the dog out, or where phones should be plugged in at night.
Take small steps now
There is a natural tendency to believe that making a dramatic change is the best way to shake up or start a new routine. But suddenly changing from a life of watching Netflix until 2 a.m. to a new 9:00 bedtime is a recipe for failure. When our steps forward are too big, our goal is often impossible to reach, leaving us with more discouragement and very little change.
The best way to succeed at changing habits in our routine is to intentionally use small steps. And households that start taking those small steps now will be in much better shape when the new school year begins with the accompanying stress and chaos. If a much earlier bedtime is the habit change goal, start now by moving it up by 10 minutes a night. Small steps really are the key to success.
Talking through each child’s class schedule and school day will help you both understand where a short intentional break or extra support might be needed. Learning about their class schedule is a great place to start — knowing the electives your teenager chose can be an enjoyable way to learn about their changing interests and strengths.
How do I talk to my teenager about routines?
Deep down, even the most eye-rolling adolescents seek a manageable schedule that leaves enough time for work, fun and rest. Routines are the key to streamlining the daily demands and reducing the rush and stress that is often present in a busy life.
A few weeks before the first day of school is a good time to ease into the conversation about habits and routines that can help. Check out our list of seven routines, and consider which may help your family most.Ask about your child’s class schedule or what activities they hope to try this year. Casually mention the normal stress of going back to school, and ask if they’ve noticed any worries creeping in.
The way you keep a conversation going with an adolescent can make all the difference. Listen to your teenager, and find opportunities to prompt a deeper discussion by validating what you hear first. Use an approach that shows you are listening and asks for confirmation:
- It sounds like you are worried about what to expect. Did I get that right?
- Wow, it sounds like you are excited about that teacher. That's awesome!
Then dig in a little more using simple open-ended questions, such as:
- Can you tell me more about that?
- Maybe I got that wrong — what did I miss?
- Is there more to this that you’d like me to know?
If the thought of getting a conversation rolling with your teenager fills you with dread, these strategies outline what you need to know. And after you’ve had a few casual conversations about going back to school, you may sense that your adolescent prefers more independence to think about his or her routines. Consider giving your teenager this sample morning routine to think about as a starting place, and let your discussion flow from there.
ABOUT KATIE DORN
Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT is co-founder of EmpowerU and an experienced licensed school counselor and therapist. A mother of seven grown children and a successful entrepreneur and author, Katie is a strategic thinker with an ability to connect and build functional and productive teams. Her passion for finding effective ways to help students and families with mental health obstacles has fueled her work for EmpowerU since 2015.
EmpowerU’s highly personalized, online social-emotional learning program helps young people replace anxiety and depression with resilience and confidence, fueling student transformation without a heavy lift on staff or need for additional hires. We provide each student interactive lessons and personalized coaching, and we pair technology with brain research in a unique way that supports students and empowers them to grow. Our multi-year data makes it clear: nobody else understands Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and approaches SEL the way we do at EmpowerU.