How to Help Kids Transition Back to the Grind

Filed under: Day Care & Education, Mealtime, Single Parenting, Bedtime, Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Expert Advice: Big Kids, Expert Advice: Tweens, Sleep


One of the greatest gifts that children bring to us is their passion for enjoying life with wholehearted gusto.

Kids are driven by a desire to have fun 24 hours a day (if at all possible), and that thirst brings joy to the lives of everyone they touch.

That all works very well, except when it comes to motivating youngsters to do things that aren't fun -- like waking up for school, sitting obediently in a classroom, or doing homework. There isn't a parent alive who hasn't faced the challenge of trying to convince a free-spirited child to sit down and focus on her homework, or get a reluctant sleepyhead out of bed in time for class.

Helping children transition back to the grind of school begins, then, with recognizing the fact that doing unpleasant things is not in a child's nature. Discipline is a developed skill, not something children are born having. When parents approach the task of motivating youngsters by coming alongside them -- naturally engaging their cooperation -- rather than at them, which prompts them to dig in their heels, they have a much easier time getting them to buckle down and do things they don't enjoy.

Begin by having a "transition" conversation a week or so before school begins. (Some parents may want to do this sooner, but for many youngsters, talking about the end of summer casts a bleak pall over their remaining days.)

"It sure has been a great summer, hasn't it sweetheart? I'm so glad we still have a week or so to enjoy our lazy days." Allow your child to express whatever they need to say, whether it's, "Why do I have to go?" or "Can we fit in one more trip to the waterslides?" without feeling you have to argue their point. A child who's upset can't process your logical explanations about why they can't have what they want, and are only further agitated when you try to convince them that their feelings are wrong.

"Let's just enjoy this time, and figure out how to make the shift back to the school year as painless as possible, honey."

A few days before school begins, try to get the kids to bed closer to their school year bedtime. I say "try" because it may or may not work, and it's important that you remain flexible rather than desperate. (When children sense that a parent is needy or frantic, they tend to resist even more!)

Do all you can to paint a positive picture of the new school year ("You'll get to see your friends everyday!" "Your new teacher is supposed to be a lot of fun!") but don't forbid them from expressing their sadness or frustration about having to return to classes. For some children, buying school supplies or a few new outfits can help them override their disappointment about the end of summer, giving them something to look forward to on their first day back.

Have a plan for how you'll handle the morning rush, after-school activities and homework and discuss it with the family in the first days of school. Most children do best with rituals and structures; they prevent those exhausting negotiations that otherwise take place around every unpleasant task.

Part of what makes the transition back to school so difficult is that parents are often indecisive about their expectations. The clearer you are about how many times you'll come into their room to wake them or what time they need to start (or finish) their homework, the sooner they'll relax into the rhythm of the new schedule.

Allow your child to complain by offering them a willing ear to help them offload their frustration without feeling obligated to fix things to their liking. Encourage them to focus on five things that went well each day; many families make this a dinner table ritual. And make sure your children still have plenty of unstructured play time, to give them time to do the things they love -- and that which bring them the pure delight in life's simple pleasures that makes their brief passage through childhood so very magical.


AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.