HERRIMAN — Every summer, shortly before a new school year starts, BJ Weller and his wife Becky hit the brakes on anything that resembles summer fun and start assigning their kids extra tasks around the house.
The Wellers want the final days of summer break to be “as boring and job-laden as possible. I pile on as many chores as I can think of. A lot of people do the opposite,” said Weller, director of Responsive Services for Canyons School District.
While other folks scramble to squeeze in that vacation they didn’t have time for, “You gotta make it so they want to go back to school. ‘Get me outta here!’ When the kids are begging to go back, they’ll overcome any obstacle.”
School will be a goal, not dreaded.
Weller knows kids may struggle to launch positively and to sustain momentum as months unfold. Part of his job is helping students overcome challenges. A licensed clinical social worker, he’s been a principal a couple of times and now oversees the district’s school psychologists and social workers. He’s seen students flourish and flounder.
Across the valley, Jessica Porter prepares for another school year as a second-grade teacher in Murray City School District. She and husband Todd have four children, the youngest in day care, the oldest in high school.
Porter says it’s important parents give their children positive messages about school.
Returning to school means summer vacation is ending, but not that school is drudgery. Kids will see friends, meet new ones and learn new things.
Parents should allow children to get to know teachers on their own terms, Porter says.
If an older sibling or the neighbor kid had a challenging teacher before, nothing is gained by telling a child who’ll have the teacher this year that homework will pile on, along with pop quizzes.
“Sometimes we say things not even realizing what they’re picking up on,” Porter says. “The most important thing is parents modeling positivity about the coming school year.”
“Be healthy, show up and love,” says Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association and a former junior high teacher. "Show up both physically and mentally in your classes and then love learning and love the people you are with. Tend to those who are less fortunate and love finding out about your own skills, your own passions through your opportunities in education."
As a new school year begins, the Deseret News asked counselors, parents, health care providers, police and others what families can do to launch an exceptional year. Here’s what we learned:
Get sleep. Good sleep habits lessen risk of depression, daytime sleepiness, anxiety and attention lapses. Kids need a lot of it, says Scott Schauss, a physician assistant at the Riverton Hospital Sleep Disorders Center. Typically, children 12-18 need nine hours, while younger kids need 10 or 11.
“Good luck with that, right?” he says, noting activities, homework, school start times and extracurriculars make adequate sleep a huge challenge.
It’s hard to get back to a school schedule. But it’s one of the most important things families can do. Schauss suggests families use the little time left before school is in full swing to align sleep schedules with what they’ll have to be, including consistent bedtime and wake time.
An hour or two before bedtime, electronic devices should be stowed so the blue light doesn’t interfere with winding down. Those who must use devices should turn on built-in nighttime filters, which use yellow, red and brown light. Red is the least brain-stimulating. “Make sure the intensity is as low as it can be,” Schauss adds.
Finally, bedtime should be boring. “The body is good at learning habits and if you teach it the appropriate behavior is to be awake in bed, when you decide to go to bed it will think you should be awake,” he says.
Organize, from supplies to methods. Let each kid pick the items they want to use, like folders and notebooks, says Donna Goldberg, author of “The Organized Student,” who teaches students organizational skills to succeed academically. What appeals to a child will probably work for him. Young kids should stick to the teacher’s list.
Each Weller kid has a red folder for homework assignments and a green folder to put them in when they’re completed. They carry them with them and homework gets turned in every time. BJ Weller says he’s stunned how often kids don’t get credit for work because they forgot to turn it in.
His kids, Sam, 13, and Kyla, 16, put items to be signed on the kitchen counter along with a pen so there’s no excuse for a parent to forget to sign them.
Goldberg says to pack backpacks each night when there’s no rush, so nothing gets left out in the morning’s bustle.
Krista Rizzo, New York life coach and mother of boys 6 and 12, makes school prep special by taking each kid separately. “School supplies, organizers, sneakers, lunch and a chance to talk about what school’s going to look like. Then they come home and pack their backpacks, label their folders, etc. When you involve your kids, they feel connected to school a little more than if you did it all and shoved it in their faces.”
Kids also need to organize time, says Goldberg. That includes learning to tell time in context — surprisingly hard for kids in a digital world who see 6:15, but don’t get the relationship between quarter-past or how time passes. Goldberg is convinced analog clocks help kids learn to manage time, because they get to see time move and the relationship between its passage and accomplishing things. “It you can’t figure out the time you don’t know how long anything takes you — and we are all off in our estimation.”
Jump-start the year. Find out the rules, meet the teacher, read the syllabus. Get a head start on books if you know what’s coming. And talk about it all.
Rizzo and her husband always talk about what’s coming with their kids, she says, from what they’ll be doing to what the kids will be reading in school. “It helps ease anxiety and nervousness. I think for kids to have a good school year, you have to be communicating throughout the year.” Also, “if they know I’ve been there and can relate, we can have conversations about what they experience.”
Get individual planners and a family calendar. By fourth grade, kids need their own planner to list homework and what they need to do and tell at a glance if they really have time for TV, says Goldberg.
She uses a weekly calendar, too, because even little kids can take it all in, while a month is a lot. She writes down when mom and dad aren’t available. “I’ll say, ‘It was on the calendar. You knew about this for four days, so why did you wait until the day before?’”
Rizzo’s calendar is on the refrigerator, color-coded by name so at a glance anyone can see who’s got plans. She shares a Google calendar with her son who has a cellphone.
Establish meal times and dine together when possible. Several studies suggest family dinner forges bonds and provides other benefits. Teens who have dinner with family regularly are less apt to drink, smoke or take drugs, says the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
The Family Dinner Project at Harvard University compiled research that shows eating together is tied to doing better in school, higher self-esteem, resilience and lower risk of challenges including teen pregnancy, depression, eating disorders and obesity.
Food fuels bodies and brains. Childhood nutrition expert Jill Castle, host of a popular podcast, The Nourished Child, says regular meals and snacks help kids meet their nutritional requirements, learn to regulate eating habits and sustain energy levels. She says younger kids need three nutritious meals and a snack or two daily, while teens need three healthful meals and one snack. Growing and active kids may need more.
Love notes. Holly Bell, president of the Utah School Counselor Association, says little gestures help anxious children acclimate into a new school year.
She recommends tucking encouraging notes in backpacks or lunchboxes. When the school day is over, schedule time with kids to talk about their day. If you serve their favorite treat, they’ll likely spend more time chatting.
“Even if they give you a blank stare, at least you’re communicating to them that you’re interested and … someone’s there to back them up,” Bell says.
Anxiety is common, so acknowledge it and talk about strategies to address it. For younger children, it helps to read an age-appropriate book that explores the topic or ask your child to draw a picture showing “what you imagine the perfect first day of school looks like,” Bell says.
She recommends teaching kids how to make friends. “That means communication skills, looking people in the eye when you talk to them. Ask questions. That’s what (people) really want to talk about, themselves,” she says.
Parents of older children should encourage them to participate in school activities. “There’s a lot of research that shows school engagement helps with academic success, self-esteem and any type of feeling disconnected. … It can help in so many ways,” she says.
“Try to keep up that enthusiasm and reinforce that with positive talk every day” all year, she says.
Talk about worries and how you’ll handle it. Take kindergartners to the class they’ll be in and talk about what they can expect so they don’t feel overwhelmed. Visit any new middle school or high school and find classrooms, the office, the bathrooms, the auditorium.
Weller says it’s really important to to learn to open the locker before school starts, because visibly fumbling with it is embarrassing. When he was a middle school principal, “I can’t tell you how many lockers I helped open that first week. Kids were just in tears.” And at winter break he found some kids had never used their lockers for that very reason.
Watch how you walk and drive. In 2016, SafeKids.org watched 39,000 middle and high school students and 56,000 drivers in school zones. It was ugly.
One-fourth of high school students and one-sixth of middle schoolers didn’t pay attention as they walked; lots texted or wore headphones. An unbelievable 80 percent crossed the street unsafely. And a third of drivers — typically parents — dropped off or picked up students in potentially dangerous ways, sometimes forcing students to weave through moving traffic.
It matters. Nationwide, five teen pedestrians die every week in school zones. In 2015, teens 15-19 made up half of pedestrian fatalities in school zones.
Officer Gary Keller, public information officer for the South Salt Lake Police Department, says pedestrians should always use crosswalks and never cross mid-block.
Even in a crosswalk, students need to watch for vehicles. They shouldn’t assume “they’re golden” just because they’re walking in a designated crosswalk, he adds. “People just don’t focus and there’s a lot more traffic out there when school starts. You have to train your kids to be on the lookout.”
Keller recommends students walk to school in groups along an established route. Parents should walk the route with their child before school starts and point out homes of trusted adults if they need help along the way.
If families carpool, every child needs to be buckled in a seat belt, Keller says. There is no exception to this law, although one creative dad Keller once met cited the “soccer mom law” to explain why children in the minivan weren’t belted or in safety seats.
“There is no ‘soccer mom law,’” Keller says.
If school has a drop-off zone, use it. Follow arrows and signs.
Walk young students across the parking lot and teach them to always follow the sidewalk skirting the lot. Being in a hurry doesn’t change that rule.
Listen, but let the kid fix it. And leave venting sessions on a high note. “Parents are usually their kids’ safe place,” says Weller. Kids may just want to unload everything that worried or bothered them. “Parents just really need to listen; they don’t necessarily need to take action on all those things. Listen and say, ‘What did you learn from that?’ ‘What are you going to do?’”
Often, Weller adds, what seemed like a big deal isn’t once they’ve vented. Parents should “empower them to problem-solve.” The exception is safety. Parents should take that to school administrators immediately.
Weller suggests leaving venting sessions on a high note, by asking kids to name five positive things about their day or what good question they asked at school.
“Encourage that growth mindset; don’t get stuck in negativity.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly spelled Scott Schauss' last name as Shauss.