As the 2021-22 school year approaches, it brings with it all the usual back-to-school tasks and worries — along with an unfamiliarity and uncertainty after the disruptions and nearly constant adaptation required by students, teachers and families last year.
But the back-to-school season doesn’t have to be filled with anxiety and overwhelm. At EmpowerU, we believe that positive changes begin with small steps that help people of any age gain a bit more control over the world where they live. Routines are a practical tool that adolescents and their parents can use to create more calm and less chaos as the school year begins.
These seven areas make up the most common areas that households with teenagers can address with thoughtful routines:
- Meals, snacks and nutrition
- Transportation expectations
- Sports, activities and jobs
- Other family priorities
No matter how ambitious you feel today — or how much room you see for improvement in your home — be kind to yourself and your teenager. Avoid the temptation to take on many new routines at once. Instead, choose two or three realistic priority areas that have the best potential to help your family and your student over the next several weeks. Begin there, and know that successful steps toward change in the coming weeks will naturally create more opportunities to tackle additional changes down the road.
Meals, snacks and nutrition
When will meal and snack times be, and who will be responsible for planning and preparing them? Your adolescent can play a big role in these routines.
But anyone expecting a hot breakfast 15 minutes before school starts will be frustrated to show up in the kitchen and realize breakfast isn’t made.
Communicate about meal and snack routines in advance, as well as expectations for good nutrition and fewer processed foods to fuel bodies and brains. This will keep everyone on the same page, and it will go a long way to helping your teenager know what to expect and how to prepare. Helping your adolescent thoughtfully create a grocery list or identify simple meal prep routines are valuable skills for now and the future.
Few things baffle parents more than sleep patterns. In fact, nearly half of parents in a 2018 study reported that their teenager had trouble falling asleep or struggled to fall back to sleep after waking in the night. Generally speaking, adolescents need 8-10 hours of sleep nightly, but just over a third of American teens say they are getting at least eight hours on a typical school night.
Consider a conversation about a healthy goal of 8-10 hours of sleep on school nights, and compare that to the schedule demands of school, work and family life. If your teenager is having trouble sleeping at night, reduce stimulation in the late evening (e.g., 30 minutes of tech-free time before bed).
If getting schoolwork done on time is a chronic source of stress for your teenager, you’re not alone. Motivation has taken a hit over the past year, leaving some students too overwhelmed to take charge of their schoolwork and complete tasks efficiently.
Review your student’s weekly schedule together. Explore daytime routines that might help your student keep track of unfinished work and protect time to complete it. If homework tends to be overwhelming, consider creating a routine that maximizes connection and support. Perhaps moving the workspace into the kitchen or living room for social support will help, or find reliable times each evening when parent support is available.
Who will be driving?
This question can be heard echoing in kitchens, living rooms and text message threads in every community across the country. Many parents and guardians appreciate the flexibility that comes when teenagers become able to drive themselves to and from school, activities and part-time jobs. This becomes less straightforward when your household has more licensed drivers than it does vehicles, or your teenager’s friends are eager to offer to drive.
Communication and planning are essential for families with adolescents who can drive. Begin with the predictable routines — to and from school, work, practice, and other recurring commitments. Outline when your teen driver should expect to ride with a parent, drive themself or catch a ride with a trusted friend. Include these routines on a schedule or magnet board as the year gets started, to avoid misunderstandings and make sure nobody mistakenly drives off in a car that someone else was planning to use.
The question of your teenager riding with friends has more to do with safety than convenience. Ask your student about their friends as drivers, and share your own expectations, including seatbelt use and safe driver behavior. And remember, you always have the right to set limits on who your teenager is allowed to ride with in a car.
If you have questions or concerns about your teenager’s decisions behind the wheel, there are several apps designed to help parents and guardians monitor habits and enhance opportunities for communication between you and your teen driver.
Sports, activities and jobs
Depending on your middle or high schooler’s interests, after school activities can gobble up a lot of available time each week. If extra-curricular routines have created problems in the past — compromised schoolwork, transportation challenges, unhealthy sleep or something else — now is the time for mini goal-setting. Working together, use a calendar or other visual guide to block out the time for school, sports, jobs and other activities. Seeing how these separate things fit all together on paper will help everyone understand how time will be used and how to find a workable balance.
Keep in mind that an overloaded schedule will overwhelm just about anyone, including adolescents. It’s entirely appropriate for a parent or guardian to suggest ways to lighten the calendar, even if dropping an extra activity may be unpopular in the moment. Work with your teenager to identify options, and don’t be afraid to make recommendations or set the clear expectations needed to protect a healthy balance for your student and household.
When it comes to screen time, every family has different expectations and norms. Seek to establish routines that help your teenager enjoy what technology offers, without sacrificing the essentials of sleep, nutrition, schoolwork or other family priorities.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents of adolescents set healthy limits on the way their children use any media, whether entertainment or educational. Routines can be used to allow or limit technology use at certain times of day or days of the week — for example, texting with friends or finding a YouTube tutorial for help on a homework assignment on a Tuesday afternoon, or watching a favorite show or playing a video game on Friday night.
Other family priorities
Every household includes unique routines important to the family structure, such as the expectation of certain family meals, chores, religious or cultural practices. These routines may not be new, but it’s helpful to include them as you review schedules for the coming year. Especially for those family activities or expectations that shifted during the pandemic, back-to-school time is a good opportunity to review both when these things take place and what participation is expected.
The process of defining and practicing new routines takes persistence and patience, but the benefits in academics, mental health and overall household calm are well worth the effort. Learn more about the benefits of routines to your adolescent, as well as tips and resources to help you work together on reducing stress during the back-to-school season.
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.