The start of the school year means changes in the whole family’s routine. Some teens welcome the return to the school routine; others resist it. Many teenagers think they don’t need any help getting back in the swing of things. Fortunately, most parents know better.
Though they’re nearly grown, teenagers still need guidance and oversight. Reestablishing structure in the home is vital in order to set adolescents up for success in the fall. And it’s even more important when teens are struggling with their mental health or at risk for developing a mental health disorder.
- Establishing a back-to-school routine helps the whole family transition into the school year more easily.
- Teens with mental health issues especially benefit from having a predictable daily routine.
- A week or two before school starts, gradually adjust your teen’s sleeping and eating times so that when school starts, they’ve adjusted to the new schedule.
- Have teens avoid screen time an hour before bed so they can get a better night’s sleep.
Why Is a School Routine Important for Teens?
During the two to three months that kids are out of school, their schedules can vary widely. Many teens don’t wake up or go to sleep at set times in the summer. They may stay in bed all day and eat at all different hours. For most, homework has become a distant memory. While a reliable routine may not be necessary in the summer, it’s essential during the school year.
Creating a predictable schedule gives teens and parents a sense of control. It also provides teens with a feeling of safety. Having an established structure to rely on helps the whole family transition into the school year more easily.
Furthermore, the skills that teenagers develop by adhering to a routine will serve them well when they enter college or the workplace.
Daily routines are particularly important for teenagers who struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues and may feel scared to go back to school. For children with cognitive disabilities like autism, the unstructured days of summer are challenging.
Knowing what to expect and when helps teens with mental health conditions feel calmer and less anxious. With clear guidelines, teens can more easily relax and focus on their daily tasks.
8 Tips for Reestablishing Structure
Teenagers react to structure in different ways. Many thrive on it and look forward to the start of the school year.
For some, letting go of summer’s spontaneity is especially hard. Planning for the transition back to school makes the experience smoother for everyone.
Here are eight tips families can use to get back into the school routine. Read on to learn how to get ready for school and make the transition as smooth as possible.
Tip #1: Create a Schedule and Share It
For most teenagers, organization isn’t a strong suit. That’s because their brains are still developing, along with their executive functioning skills. But it’s important for teens to understand how to use their time appropriately. Before the school year begins, parents should talk with their teens about their schedule—not just their morning schedule and school schedule, but their after-school schedule, too. How much time will they spend at soccer practice? How long will it take to get home? How much time do they need for eating dinner, doing chores, and completing homework?
Put each activity in its time slot, and create a way for everyone to easily access the schedule. It could be a colorful chart, calendar, or list noting what needs to happen and when. Post it somewhere visible, like the refrigerator or their bedroom door. Family members might want to consider sharing an online schedule. But remember that teens spend a lot of time on their phones already, so it may not be wise to add anything that increases their screen time.
Time management is a life skill that will serve teens well no matter what they do in the future. But parents should remember that packed schedules are bound to be exhausting. Don’t hesitate to suggest that teens drop an activity or two to maintain a healthy balance of work and play.
Tip #2: Wake Up and Go to Bed at Set Times
Generally speaking, teenagers need eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. But research shows that up to 70 percent of high school students sleep less than seven hours per night. Chronic sleep deprivation can negatively affect teenagers’ mental well-being and hinder their ability to concentrate. Teenagers with a set bedtime schedule are more likely to get adequate rest. And that means they have more energy to perform at school.
Don’t wait until the night before school starts to remind teens that they need to go to bed early. A week or two before the big day, encourage them to get to bed sooner at night and to set a morning alarm, too. So as not to shock their systems, recommend they wake up and go to bed in slightly earlier increments each day. That way, they’ll be more accustomed to their new morning routine when the first day of school comes around.
Tip #3: Limit Teens’ Screen Time
Another way to ensure that teens get enough sleep is to limit their screen time, especially in the evenings. When teens are on their screens right before bed, they tend to feel less sleepy. Blue light from computer tablets significantly lowers melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. In fact, two hours of exposure to a bright tablet screen at night reduced melatonin levels by about 22 percent, according to one study.
Make device disconnection part of the nightly routine. In the hour before bed, encourage teens to turn off cell phones, computers, laptops, televisions, handheld video game devices, and other electronics that emit blue light. Less time online encourages teens to read, journal, or connect with family. And parents can follow the same guidelines: If you model healthy device management, your kids are more likely to do the same.
Tip #4: Eat Regular Meals as a Family
Life usually gets a whole lot busier when school starts. With kids juggling homework, extracurricular activities, and time with friends, it’s hard to gather the whole family together for evening meals. While it may be challenging to eat together every night, blocking off time to connect as a family around the dinner table is well worth it. Here are some of the benefits:
- In a recent survey, 91 percent of parents reported that their families’ stress levels are lower when they eat together regularly.
- According to one study, eating together frequently as a family lowers the risk of eating disorders, substance abuse, violent or aggressive behavior, feelings of depression, and thoughts of suicide in adolescents.
- The study also found that regular family meals increase adolescents’ self-esteem and improve their academic performance.
To make family meals more enjoyable, everyone should turn their phones off to keep the focus on each other.
Tip #5: Work Downtime into the Routine
Living in a culture that prizes activity, many teens juggle daily routines that are chock-full of demanding classes, extracurricular activities, homework, maybe even a part-time job or college prep workshop. There’s value in productivity. But overscheduled teens can also feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Everyone needs time to unwind and recharge. Downtime is a healthy form of stress relief.
If your teen doesn’t have downtime, work with them to schedule it. For example, before they dive into homework, they could take an hour to do whatever they want—take a walk, dance, draw, journal, read, or listen to music. The amount of downtime a teen needs depends on their temperament. Some high-energy kids thrive with a mostly go-go-go schedule, and others need more unscheduled time each day.
Tip #6: Make Sure There’s Time to Move
Some kids love being physically active. Others need some encouragement to get moving. Either way, scheduling time for movement is important, even more so if teens don’t take physical education classes at school. And even if they do, they might still benefit from a a block of time set aside to swim, play a sport, ride a bike, jump on a trampoline, or practice yoga.
The benefits of exercise are well-known. First, it’s a huge stress reliever. It’s also been shown to bolster academic performance, improve sleep, and reduce symptoms of depression in both young children and teenagers. The World Health Organization guidelines on physical activity recommend that children and adolescents between the ages of 5 and 17 engage at least three times a week in vigorous-intensity aerobic activities and strengthening exercises.
Tip #7: Help Teens Get Organized
Some teenagers are diligent about organizing their assignments and keeping track of their responsibilities. Others may need help establishing regular routines for studying and finding the right methods for organization. There are many tools available, ranging from a simple checklist or spreadsheet to more sophisticated time-management tools.
To figure out what tools a teen needs, start with a discussion. Talk with them about which subjects require more time. Help them decide if they need to rearrange their schedule as a result. They may realize they need to replace some extracurricular activities with academic responsibilities. If tools and parent support aren’t working, explore the possibility of a tutor or an academic coach.
Along with organizing their tasks, teens may also need support organizing their personal space. When teens have messy rooms, it’s often harder for them to concentrate and it can negatively affect their mood. Living in a cluttered space can also make anxiety and depression worse.
Tip #8: Practice Gratitude
In the fall, the pace of life intensifies and everyone’s to-do list grows. Hence, it’s helpful for families and teens to slow down and take a few moments each day to practice gratitude. Many studies have proven that expressing appreciation for what’s good in your life boosts happiness and other positive emotions. In addition, the practice of gratitude helps teens build resilience.
Here’s how to create a Family Gratitude Jar:
- Decorate a jar with ribbons, glitter, stickers, paint, or anything else you find beautiful. Find a place to leave it in a common area of the house.
- Cut up little slips of paper and put them in a small box next to the jar, with a few colorful markers for writing.
- Invite every member of the family to reflect on what they’re grateful for each day, write it down on a slip of paper, and drop it in the jar. You can each write about anything you’re grateful for, big or small. It might be a positive interaction at school or work, doing well on a test, or getting together with a good friend. Encourage family members to write down three things each day for the gratitude jar.
- When the jar is full—or on a day you’ve previously decided on—sit together as a family, read each paper one by one, and savor the good memories of your experiences.
Teens can also try writing in a gratitude journal every day. By consciously practicing gratitude, we train our brains to notice the good things and feel thankful for them.
When to Seek Additional Support
Even with a well-planned routine and tools for organization, some teens require additional support with their executive functioning and mental health. Some adolescents may struggle with academics and need a tutor. Others may benefit from a support group, therapy with a mental health professional, or another form of mental health treatment.
Signs that indicate a teen may need additional support include:
- Disturbed sleep
- Decreased or increased appetite
- Difficulty focusing
- Fidgety behavior
- Worsening grades
- Increased irritability and/or crying bouts
- Emotional or behavioral outbursts
- Multiple new physical symptoms such headaches, stomachaches, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea
- Talking about suicide